War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

If 20th Century Fox is smart…they’ll stop this franchise right here and leave it a surprisingly well-constructed and self-contained trilogy. But…when money talks…the executives listen…artistic integrity be damned! Time will tell on that one. It’s a cooking hot Sunday at the tail-end of July and I felt the call of the cinema…yet again. This time I had another attractive bevy of movies to choose from (‘Spiderman’, ‘Valerian’, ‘Atomic Blonde’, etc), but the one that sucked me in was director Matt Reeves return to the reinvented ‘Planet of the Apes’ series, after he’d kicked a fair amount of ass with the second installment, 2014’s ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’. When the first one, ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ popped onto the scene in 2011, I was instinctively dismissive of it, easily reducing it in my mind to that of just another intellectually-devoid ‘cash grab’ based on a culturally recognized title, further showing how unoriginal and artistically-bankrupt Hollywood is these days. Luckily I was wrong and found myself invested in and enjoying that first movie from the get-go. That trend followed with the second flick which, as noted earlier, was very well-handled under director Matt Reeves (‘Cloverfield’) assured direction. Given that ‘Dawn’ made some sweet cash, a third film was inevitable.
‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ picks up a number of years after the events of ‘Dawn’. ‘Caesar’ (Andy Serkis) has led his clan of apes into the forested hills of Northern California, where they strive to live a peaceful existence away from the violent persecution of the dwindling  and aggressive human race. After a prolonged period of peace, the humans arrive in the form of a renegade military battalion known as ‘Alpha and Omega’, led by ‘The Colonel’ (Woody Harrelson). In the wake of the violent first encounter of these two groups, ‘Caesar’ experiences a tragedy as two of his loved ones fall to ‘The Colonel’s uncompromising actions against the apes.Vowing revenge, ‘Caesar’ pursues the ‘Alpha and Omegas’, accompanied by a small entourage of loyal ape ‘lieutenants’ and a little human girl, who was stricken mute by the Simian Flu virus, that they find along the way. As they get closer to their target, they also encounter ‘Bad Ape’ (Steve Zahn), a former Zoo captive that developed advanced levels of speech similar to ‘Caesar’ himself. This all leads to an emotional show-down that features a Mission: Impossible-like mass escape, a helicopter attack and several impressively-sized and staged *BOOM!!*s.
I very much enjoyed ‘War of the Planet of the Apes’, despite the misleading title. While there is definitely a good dose of ‘war’, namely a gritty ambush / counter-ambush at the beginning and an ‘all out’ battle at the end, there isn’t balls-to-the-walls combat, as one might expect. This isn’t ‘Saving Private Ape Ryan’. But what it lacked in action, it certainly made up for in character, drama and tension. Probably 75% of the 2 hour 20 minute run-time is dedicated exclusively to ‘Caesar’ and his clan / family of apes and their interactions. Like the previous two films, the realization of the ape characters is largely rock-solid, which went a long way to increasing the stakes that faced the main characters. I found myself wanting ‘Caesar’ and his small group of determined ape fighters to triumph over the xenophobic, shoot-first humans.
One of the most noticeable aspects of these flicks is the technical prowess on display, especially in the ‘motion capture’ department, and ‘War’ is no exception. Andy Serkis is the undisputed master of mo-cap, and this performance just further solidified that opinion. Coupled with the acting, the CG used to ‘paint’ the apes was top-notch. Individual hairs and tangible-looking skin tones were the Order of the Day. VERY impressive work there.
Other technical aspects were admirable as well, such as the Production Design, particularly is how detailed and how different the all-natural ape habitat was from the run-down, oppressive ‘concrete and rebar’ ambiance of the human camp. The sequences in the snowy mountains and rainy forests were cool too, with a slick Sound Design to match.
If I had to dredge up a Negative or two, a couple minor ‘bitchings’ do come to mind. I found it a little cheezy and cliche’d that Harrelson’s VERY ‘Kurtz’-like ‘Colonel’ character was constantly donning a stylin pair of sunglasses…at night AND in the rain. It was just a little TOO cartoony and nonsensical, for a guy who’s supposed to be a top shelf-level military operative in this ‘grounded’ sci-fi universe. There were also a couple CG shots late in the movie of attack helicopters doing their attack helicopter thing that looked WAY more like video game graphics than I think they were supposed to. I got the impression that SO much $ had been dumped into making the ape characters as realistic as possible, that there was no more money for anything else…like these shots. They had that ‘moving too fast’ style that, to me, instantly tells my mind that what I’m seeing is just 1s and 0s in a ‘puter somewhere. It was a little distracting…but I got over it pretty fast.
All in all, ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ was a solid and surprisingly emotional entry into Fox’s ‘Apes’ franchise and, as I mentioned earlier, if they wanted to stop now and preserve it as a self-contained Trilogy, that would be just fine with me. As it stands, the 3 movies carry a well-conceived arc for the ‘Caesar’ character that I found to be consistent and appropriate, and I was happy with what Matt Reeves and Co. had given me when the final credits rolled. I saw it in 3D and I think the added dimension bolstered the flick about 50% of the time. At some points, I forgot that it was 3D, while other times I was acutely reminded. That being said, it’s not necessary to ensure that you hit THAT version of the movie, should you opt to check it out on The Big Screen. While there is a lot of top-notch cinematography and Sound Design, it’s not quite to the level that DEMANDS to be seen in the theatre (unlike, say… last weekend’s ‘Dunkirk’!). If you’ve enjoyed the previous two ‘Apes’ films, you will like this one too. Simply put, it’s a well-constructed and visually-arresting film that’s a little deeper and emotional than the average movie-goes might expect and is definitely worth your time, either in the cinema or in the privacy of your own home. Ape not kill ape!


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