Monday, July 17, 2017

Zaki's Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

Six years ago, Twentieth Century Fox executed one of the most skillful under-the-radar reboots in movie history with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. As directed by Rupert Wyatt (from a script by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver) it was a grounded, character-based "prequel" of sorts to its Planet of the Apes franchise that was embraced by audiences to the tune of nearly $500 million worldwide. In addition to laying the pipe for the 1968 classic, Rise offered audiences remarkable marriage of groundbreaking digital effects and performance capture technology to visualize its menagerie of hirsute heroes -- led by Andy Serkis as hyper-intelligent chimp Caesar.

Director Matt Reeves stepped in for 2014's sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which upped the intensity of its scenario while also carrying the ball inexorably forward towards the preordained conclusion of simian domination promised by its title, and was rewarded with critical love and an even greater global haul. Taken together, these two films were notable not only for their special effects advances -- at least as much of a game-changer as John Chambers' ape prosthetics from the original batch of Apes adventures -- but also for how they made audiences complicit in the downfall of their own species, all under the auspices of popcorn entertainment.

Now here we are three years on, and Reeves has the wind at his back as he puts a proper bow on this iteration of Apes, making for one of the most consistently compelling and emotionally affecting trilogies in recent memory. Featuring a script by Reeves and Mark Bomback, War for the Planet of the Apes picks up five years after the ominous ending of Dawn promised all-out conflict for Caesar and his band. In the interim, human civilization has continued its rapid descent following the ravages of the so-called "Simian Flu," which wiped out a big chunk of the population while imbuing apes across the planet with heightened intelligence.

Following a harrowing opening battle sequence, a military leader known as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) tracks Caesar to his wooded lair and exacts a heavy toll. With the chimp leader driven to exact revenge, he embarks on a Willard-esque journey to track down the Kurtz-esque Colonel even as he sends his fellow apes to safe harbor in a distant land. Accompanied by longtime compatriots Rocket (Terry Notary) and orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), Caesar is joined along the way by a mute human girl (Amiah Miller) and a talkative chimpanzee called Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), both of whom point the way towards the familiar Planet of the future. All of this culminates in a war that's no less gripping for the fact that it's more metaphorical than it is literal.

The journey we've gone on with Andy Serkis during this Apes iteration has allowed us to follow his chimp Guevara from innocent naif to hardened warrior, with effects technology advancing so rapidly in just six years that there truly are no more seams between real and digital. If Serkis fails to get any mention during awards' season, it would represent a major failing of foresight given where the industry is headed. As main human baddie, Harrelson gets to twirl his mustache a bit more than Gary Oldman and Brian Cox did in previous entries, and has a particularly memorable bit of monologuing opposite Caesar that's probably one of the most effective moments of the whole trilogy.

While I think I preferred the overall narrative dynamics of Dawn to this entry, we're talking about a difference of degrees, and that does nothing to diminish the singular achievement of this three-act saga. Sixteen years ago, this brand appeared to be dead-in-the-water thanks to the less-than-stellar reception of Tim Burton's abortive Planet of the Apes remake, which quickly faded from the cultural conversation. How fortunate, then, that Fox got another bite at the apple. Reeves' fandom since childhood for the franchise is evident in every frame of his Apes pictures. This is a grim story of loss and hate and revenge, told against the even-grimmer backdrop of the literal end of the human race.

Far from the omnipresent buzzword of "camp" it tends to get tagged with, Planet of the Apes' most distinctive feature in all its iterations (yes, even the Saturday morning cartoon show) is its unrelenting nihilism. This is a series, after all, that ended its first film in '68 by telling us humankind blew itself to hell in a nuclear war, and ended its second by blowing the world to hell for good measure. Should they continue on from here, there are 2000 years of story time available before we ever need worry about retreading Charlton Heston crumpled in front of a half-buried Statue of Liberty, but should they choose not to, War for the Planet of the Apes closes at a place that feels entirely true to its roots while being fulfilling in its own right.

For even more in-depth Apes talk with spoilers, plus my interview with director David Lowery about his new film A Ghost Story and conversation about all the latest out of Hollywood, check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast via this link or the embed below:

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