The War is for the Planet, but These Apes are After Your Heart

People often complain about the modern state of cinema (or music, or whatever) and it’s easy to look around and say, “They just don’t make ‘em like they used to.” Especially when you’re regularly inundated with a barrage of crap. But we shouldn’t forget that it’s the one percent of exceptional work that will be remembered. While they don’t make them like they used to, they did make War for the Planet of the Apes like they do now, and they absolutely nailed it. Between Logan, Baby Driver, and now War there is no doubt 2017 will be remembered as a great year for large scale genre filmmaking.

War picks up not long after Dawn left off. The apes and humans are at war in the woods of San Francisco. The ape leader Caesar (played by Andy Serkis, whose moving performance is expertly adapted to an ape’s anatomy by a team of incredible Weta Digital animators) sends a message of peace to the mysterious human leader, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). Despite Caesar’s righteous leadership, The Colonel unleashes a ruthless attack on the ape hideout. This forces the apes to flee east through the desert. Instead of joining his people Caesar swears to exact revenge on The Colonel.

The film continues the Planet of the Apes tradition of being a character drama first and a genre-movie second. It wears the skin of war drama, a revenge thriller, a biblical epic, and a western. But really it’s about Caesar’s struggle between the responsibility of leading his people, and the personal, emotional need to enact violent retribution on the man who has brought him so much pain.  

Caesar grows to understand the fundamental flaw in his logic, and chooses to ignore it. He recognizes how it is wrong, but also that he needs to defy his principles for emotional closure.

It’s an arch honest to how we make decisions in reality, how we choose to stray from our dearly held ideologies and spit in the face of logic. The film plays one of Caesar’s greatest strength, uncompromising determination, as a flaw. Caesar doesn’t make the mistake, then learn that he shouldn’t have done it. He learns that he shouldn’t do it, and admits, he just needs to.

This central arc is a great example of how multifaceted the drama of this film is. There’s no simple answer. Constantly evolving circumstances outside of his control rob Caesar of closure at every turn. The film expertly forces the character into a corner, and the character’s soul is revealed when he’s forced to make the tough decisions. Caesar is a powerful individual with deity-like respect from his followers. His exceptional actions infer how he would be mythologized to those who just hear stories about him, but the film wholly gives the audience Caesar’s point of view, humanizing the character with passionate emotions.

I’m more conflicted about The Colonel. Woody Harrelson is really compelling, but he makes all the obvious choices for the cold, calculated, warhawk. Although these films are tremendous at creating empathy for the ape characters and nuanced conflict, their main human villain characters have all been more two dimensional. Brian Cox and Tom Felton in Rise despise apes for no reason, and that’s before they became scapegoats for causing the apocalypse. Gary Oldman in Dawn has a stubbornly one-sided perspective, essentially a less intense version of the Harrelson character in War. It doesn’t help that much of The Colonel’s screen time is spent on clunky exposition. The Colonel’s narrative is gripping, his arc is thematically rich and poignant. But the delivery of this information is sloppy. The Colonel explains his backstory in a long monologue to Caesar. He very thoroughly describes his past, his motivation, and intentions for no great reason in particular besides the fact that Caesar (and the audience) needs this information for the plot to progress. This was a disappointing and out of place weakness in a film that is otherwise carefully constructed and restrained.

Another element that I was mixed on was the cinematography. Sometimes the dim muddy colors became exhausting. Even day time is dark in this world, and earthy browns and grays become boring after a while. That said, there is a lot of striking imagery, usually due to the great use of location. The changing landscape, from the damp San Fran wilderness, to the serene coastal beach, to the snowy forest (where it still rains quite a bit for some reason), lend to some stunning shots.

War for the Planet of the Apes is tentpole spectacle filmmaking at it’s absolute strongest. Despite it’s flaws, it is deliberate, subtly stylish, emotionally engaging, and a thrilling ride. This is up there with best flicks of the year so far, and one of my favorite sci fi films in recent history.

I give this film 8.5 bad apes out of 10 bad humans.

OTHER THOUGHTS

  • There is a really obvious lack of women throughout this movie. The two women Apes exist as a shallow extension of their male counterpart, and are needlessly feminized with braided hair. It’s sad that the 1968 original had a more thoughtfully written women than it’s 2017 counterpart.
  • In addition the films problems with female characters (or lack thereof) the film also problematically conflates the ability to speak with high mindedness. Pretty necessary for the plot but still…eh.
  • Michael Giacchino’s score is fantastic. It’s got a very old school, sweeping epic feeling, channelling old American westerns.
  • It will be interesting to see how the effects age. I recently rewatched Dawn and though I remember it being impeccable when it first came out, it already has a few video gamey looking shots with a few years of age. Still a great film on all fronts.
    Director Matt Reeves is signed on to make The Batman. While I have little hope for the DC Cinematic universe, Reeves gives me hope. (It helps that he’s described his approach with words like “noir” and “Hitchcockian.”)
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