Saturday, August 12, 2017

New, spoiler-free, Release! War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

Director: Matt Reeves

A very solid ending to an overall strong trilogy, all much to my surprise.

A touch of my history with this series: for most of my life, I had never really known much about the "Apes" series of films, aside from knowing about the classic twist at the end of the original 1968 movie and the fact that there always seemed to be marathons of the first five Apes movies running on television on Sundays during my childhood in the early and mid-1980s. I also didn't bother with the attempted 2001 reboot directed by Tim Burton. I did watch about 5 minutes of it a few years after its release, which was enough to realize that it was certainly not to my tastes. It wasn't until last year, during a big screen showing of the '68 original that I decided to give it a go. My full review is here, but suffice it to say that I found that the movie has not aged well. As much as I love finding worthy movie series to get obsessed over, the original Planet of the Apes did not inspire an urge to seek out the subsequent four movies in the original series.

And so it sat until I couldn't ignore the overwhelmingly and consistently positive reviews of this most recent reboot, kicking off with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011 and continuing in 2014 with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Rise was surprisingly good, if not completely flawless. I was impressed with how they handled the background stories plausibly and with some genuine heart. The sequel, Dawn, was a rather different movie directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield and Let Me In). Dawn was an even grimmer tale of a struggle for survival and identity, showing even more narrative and character savvy than its solid predecessor. At that second movie's end, the hyper-intelligent chimp Caesar and his large band of similarly-intelligent primates had defeated two aggressive adversarial factions - one ape and one human - to leave them relatively in peace amidst a world where humans have been nearly wiped out due to a simian-borne virus.

War for the Planet of the Apes picks up roughly five years after the events of Dawn, with Caesar and his community under siege from human military forces seeking to wipe them out completely. When a few members of Caesar's immediate family are killed in an assassination attempt on his life, he sends his community away to find a peaceful area farther to the east, while he and a few of his closest confidants attempt to track down and kill the man responsible for Caesar's loss - a military colonel played by Woody Harrelson. Caesar eventually finds the Colonel holed up in a small fortress with a loyal army of soldiers who are willing to kill and die for him in an effort to rid the planet of any remaining form of ape, as a form of perceived self-preservation.

The frozen, worn down shelter where Caesar's crew discovers
"Bad Ape" is one of several stunning and highly memorable
set pieces that grace the picture.
War is similar in tone to director Reeve's previous Apes movie in that it is mostly grim and severe, with only a few moments of levity. However, I never felt that this bogged down the movie, as the themes and questions raised are ones that are well worth pondering. There is also more than a little metaphorical food for thought, as one can easily view the harried apes as representing any one of the many groups of oppressed people throughout history. As one born and raised in the U.S., seeing enslaved apes being whipped, crucified, and eventually raising their fists in acts of defiant power quickly conjures up images of this country's historically brutal treatment of African Americans. It's especially hard to watch a scene in which Caesar, while being whipped, stares directly in the Colonel's eyes, and not see echoes of the similar and famous scene in Glory, with Denzel Washington offering Matthew Broderick's character the same icy glare. However, the apes could easily stand in for any "outsider" group who has been subjected to oppression and torture by those who fear them, whether its Jewish exiles of Biblical history or indigenous groups nearly everywhere in the world, Caesar's apes signify minorities' struggles throughout human history. One could probably get into a heated debate about using primates to represent such oppressed groups, but I felt that the movie handled it deftly enough.

But even such lofty themes can fall flat in films if they are not represented in sympathetic characters. As with Dawn, the film does an outstanding job with this, which is all the more impressive given that the most stirring moments are produced by computer-generated primates. Thanks to cutting-edge digital and motion-capture effects (the detail in Caesar's ever-more-vicious scowl is impeccable), along with some excellent physical acting by Andy Serkis and his "ape" cohort, it is easy to become invested in the plight of Caesar and his band. Enhancing the engagement on the character level is that the set pieces, environments, and other visual aspects of the film are outstanding, creating a cohesive look and feel to the entire movie.

I will say that, though the movie is solid top-to-bottom, it is one that I don't and perhaps won't feel the urge to see again. Despite the strength of virtually every element of the film, its grim tone and relatively unoriginal message (don't judge other groups until you know them) don't inspire repeat viewings for me. That said, I'm certainly glad I saw this final installment on the big screen, and I will be looking forward to future films that director Matt Reeves directs.