War for the Planet of the Apes Review

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or better known as “Ape Prison Break”

Been meaning to get to this film for a while now, but one of the film’s major metaphors has now struck a chord with me based on the events of the recent week, so here we are. You may wonder where I’m going with drawing connections between a movie about talking apes and white supremacist rallies, but it’ll make far more sense when you see the movie for yourself. Will need to drop into a few key plot details that really aren’t earth-shaking spoilers, but for those who want a clean slate going in should just skip to my final paragraph after reading the following summary.

After the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes where humankind officially declared war on hyper-evolved apes in a post-apocalyptic Earth, we follow the leader of the apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis) as he keeps his tribe safe from heavily armed human soldiers. While Caesar is trying to find a location that will keep his kind safe from these humans, tragedy strikes when a military force led by a man known only as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) irreparably damages his family. Wanting revenge, he lives his people behind and sets out into the wilderness to claim vengeance with his adviser, Maurice, in tow. Together they encounter an ape suffering massive PTSD named Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) and an orphaned young girl (Amiah Miller) that seems to be suffering from a strange new plague infecting humans leaving them mute. Turns out this plague seems to be the driving motivation behind the Colonel’s increasingly deranged actions that culminate into an act that puts Caesar’s status as a leader into jeopardy.

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“Let’s go off on a fun, family-friendly adventure”

Really trying to avoid spoilers here, but I do want to address what this movie is and is not. It is not depicting a brutal war between humans and apes as suggested by the title and the trailers, but it is an honestly amazing end to a trilogy that began with Rise of the Planet of the Apes and a prison break film. Said prison break is where we spend the majority of our time with Caesar and company, aside from a less bleak version of The Road where Caesar bonds with his fellow apes and their new orphan companion. To be honest, I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed this portion of the film, especially considering there’s barely any dialogue to the proceedings.

See, Andy Serkis’ Caesar is really the only ape who speaks in their colony, with the others being fluent in American sign language. It’s really not until you’re approaching the halfway point of the film and encounter one of the few voiced apes played by Steve Zahn, so your investment in these characters is primarily relegated to how they look and how they emote to each other. I should stress this isn’t done through makeup, because these apes are fully realized thanks to the latest and greatest motion-capture technology and it looked incredible. A lot of motion capture performances fail because of the “dead-eye” effect we saw in movies like Beowulf and The Polar Express, but War‘s eyes were meticulously designed to be as expressive as possible. It has the two pronged effect of avoiding the “uncanny valley” effect that plagues other digitally-enhanced characters, while helping you give a shit about their plight despite the fact you have to read subtitles to understand what they’re communicating.

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“Hear that Robert Zemeckis? We beat you’re lifeless dolls at their own game”

The digital effects certainly help Serkis’ performance, and he’s in top form as usual. I’ve always appreciated his intepretation of Caesar in the previous two films, but this movie cements his character as even better than his star-making turn as Gollum. It’s surprisingly deep and dramatic, and Serkis adds weight to the solid writing that turns Caesar’s journey-end as a tragedy. Critics and fans have long clamored for Serkis to be given some recognition from the Academy Awards; and while I personally don’t see them nominating him this year, I do see his performance as one of the cited reasons for a change to the rules in the future.

What I didn’t expect was to be impressed with Steve Zahn of all people. Back in the 2000s, this was the go-to guy for the sidekick to the lead in comedies; and here he’s giving an honest-to-God pained performance that was tugging at my heartstrings. While some members of my audience laughed at some of his scenes (he does provide some needed comic relief), there’s is also this uncomfortable air that people are laughing at a deeply traumatized person. It’s little moments like that which help separate the production from the usual summer fare, and boost up its credibility.

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“Never thought you’d feel bad about laughing at an ape, huh?”

The final standout of the cast is Woody Harrelson’s Colonel, and this is where we get to perhaps the boldest message of the film. His character has all the tell-tale signs of being a character molded from the school of thought that created someone like Kurtz from Heart of Darkness (or Apocalypse Now). But the people who revere him as a god are all skin-headed soldiers who worry that they’re about to displaced as the “dominant race” by the apes, and decide to go with the Colonel’s insane plan to rebel against their level-headed superiors and enslave their perceived threat to their survival. Huh, that sounds awfully familiar. And did I mention the Colonel utilizes demagoguery and faux-scientific bullshit about “purity” to inspire troops?

Oh yes, War for the Planet of the Apes is very much a “message” film and it could not have been released in a more relevant time. Similarly to how the previous Dawn film was released around the time of another major Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and dealing with themes of mutual-assured destruction), War comes at a time where deep racial divides have now fostered violent reactions as well as disturbing speeches from leaders seeking to justify this mentality. I’ve frequently said the best science fiction deals with metaphors for everyday issues facing our lives, our future, and our politics, and War is no exception. The film currently stands high on my favorite films that have been released in 2017, and this has been a phenomenal year so far. Part of my love for it comes for boldly discussing a hot-button issue while sticking a flag as to what is right and what is dead wrong (none of this “many sides” bullshit) through fully realized characters in a narrative that’s affecting and genuinely had me hooked until the credits rolled.

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“…are we the baddies?”

As a film alone, it’s another solid entry in a year filled with all stars. As a conclusive installment in the Planet of the Apes Reboot Trilogy, it’s a freaking miracle. While many remakes stick their heads in the sand to do nothing interesting with the material, and others justify boneheaded choices made to differentiate itself from the source; the Planet of the Apes Trilogy took surprising risks confidently to tell a story about racial divides, peace, war, revenge and redemption. This is one of the strongest trilogies ever made next to Lord of the Rings, and deserves to be uttered in the same breath.

I loved this film dearly, the only reason it’s not getting my highest rating is simply because I didn’t cry in heavily emotional scenes (but was nonetheless deeply invested them). Instead, it’s getting an enthusiastic…

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