Monday, July 17, 2017


(US - 2017)

Directed by Matt Reeves. Written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves. Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer, Michael Adamthwaite, Amiah Miller, Aleks Paunovic, Sara Canning, Ty Olsson, Max Lloyd-Jones, Devyn Dalton, Gabriel Chavarria, Lauro Chartrand. (PG-13, 140 mins)

Following 2011's RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and 2014's DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, the rebooted series reaches its pinnacle with WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, and it's the best genre trilogy to come down the pike since Christopher Nolan's DARK KNIGHT saga. It's really hard to convey what a stunning achievement WAR is in terms of Weta's CGI and motion capture work on star Andy Serkis and the rest of the actors playing apes. It was impressive in RISE, better in DAWN, and now it looks so natural that you forget they're visual effects. It helps that Serkis, the king of motion capture (LORD OF THE RINGS, KING KONG), has been able to create a well-drawn and very "human" character in terms of his performance as ape leader Caesar, which runs the gamut of emotions throughout WAR and regardless of the CGI work, it is Serkis acting and it's a performance so good that it may be a game-changer as far as motion capture performances getting some award recognition. The same creative personnel from DAWN returns here--director/co-writer Matt Reeves (CLOVERFIELD) and co-writer Mark Bomback--and though the new trilogy works beautifully on its own, much effort is made to put the three new films, particularly WAR, in the circular context of the original franchise that lasted from 1968 to 1973, from Caesar's young son Cornelius to the name given to a mute supporting character to some locations replicated from 1970's BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970) and 1973's BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. The Serkis trilogy can stand on its own but for APES fans, it's very much a part of the classic series that began with the Charlton Heston-starring 1968 original, even if it's not a completely perfect fit.

Set 15 years after the "Simian Flu" of RISE and three years after DAWN ape revolt led by the vengeful Koba (Toby Kebbell), WAR opens in medias res as battle between ape and human armies is ongoing, with Caesar's tribe set up in the woods and under constant threat by the armed forces of Col. McCullough (Woody Harrelson), who employs what left of the late Koba's faction of traitorous apes--dubbed "donkeys"--to assist in the hunt for Caesar. When Caesar captures some of McCullough's soldiers and shows mercy by sending them back with a plea to simply leave the apes alone in the woods and there will be no more fighting, McCullough responds by launching a raid and killing Caesar's wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) and eldest son Blue Eyes (Max Lloyd-Jones). Sending the rest of his ape tribe off through the desert to find a new, safe settlement, Caesar goes off on his own to find and kill McCullough, but is followed and eventually joined, despite his protestations, by his voice of reason and orangutan consigliere Maurice (Karin Konoval), gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), and chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary). They're eventually joined by a mute, orphaned human girl (Amiah Miller) and comic relief zoo escapee Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), pick up McCullough's trail and find some of his dead soldiers left behind, apparently shot and killed by their commander for unknown reasons. Caesar and the others find McCullough's camp, where the rest of Caesar's tribe is being held captive, captured by the colonel's men en route to their new home. Seething with rage and warned by Maurice that he's starting to act and sound just like Koba, Caesar ends up being taken prisoner by McCullough, a despot who's gone full Col. Kurtz against the US military, worshiped by his renegade followers and forcing the apes to function as slave labor to build a wall around the camp in fear of a virus that's causing humanity to regress to an inarticulate, animal-like state while apes continue to evolve and grow more intelligent.

Reeves and Bomback structure WAR in a way that initially reminds you of LOGAN, with its use of western tropes and motifs in a completely different genre. As Caesar and the other venture on horseback through the wilderness in search of McCullough, it's hard not to imagine you're in a classic western. But the tyranny of McCullough and his God complex also brings to mind APOCALYPSE NOW, with Harrelson's shaved head and a couple of shots that mimic Marlon Brando lounging around in Kurtz's shadowy, sweaty lair (there's also some graffiti in an underground tunnel that reads "Ape-pocalypse Now!"). And by the final act, it turns into a de facto jailbreak movie, with Caesar leading a revolt from within McCullough's prison camp with help from the motley crew of companions led by Maurice, who have patiently been waiting from a distance for the right time to strike. While Harrelson's colonel is a monster, there's efforts made to humanize him and show how and why he's become what he is, and for a few brief moments, the audience, and even Caesar, might sympathize with him. There's certainly parallels to be drawn with both figures (fortunately, we're spared a McCullough "We're not so different...you and I" speech), especially with Caesar's tunnelvision focus on revenge putting his entire ape clan in jeopardy, and indeed, their cold response to him when he gets thrown into the prison camp is proof that they blame their predicament on his abandoning them. But this is Serkis' show from start to finish. It's a masterful, commanding performance that takes the actor through every conceivable state of mind, complete with a devastating yet necessary end result. It's a beautifully made film, with stunning imagery that owes a debt to the surreal journey upriver in APOCALYPSE NOW to the one-way journey to madness of AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is proof that summer blockbuster sequels can still be intelligent, imaginative, moving, and slyly subversive (I doubt the presence of a power-mad, dictatorial, would-be king ordering the building of a wall is coincidental) and that CGI imagery can indeed look completely natural with some care and attention. It's just about as great a PLANET OF THE APES movie as the 1968 original and maybe even better than 1972's CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, and it's the new standard-bearer of what the possibilities can be with CGI and motion capture. An instant classic and one of 2017's best.

Before-and-after motion capture of Karin Konoval as Maurice,
 Terry Notary as Rocket, Andy Serkis as Caesar,
and MichaelAdamthwaite as Luca

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