War For The Planet Of The Apes
US (2017) Dir. Matt Reeves
In closing my review for Spider-Man: Homecoming I said it “might already be the film of the Summer”. I believe I may have spoken too soon….
The third (and final?) film in the rebooted series that began with 2011’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes picks up shortly after the events of 2014’s Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes have established a colony for themselves in the mountains having brokered a peace deal with the humans, but a rogue US military faction called Alpha-Omega has launched its own attack on the apes.
Led by a man known only as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), Alpha-Omega are intent on wiping out the apes, forcing them to flee to a new location. Before they can leave, their current base is attacked and The Colonel kills Caesar’s wife and eldest son, enraging Caesar to vow revenge. Deciding to go alone, Caesar is captured by Alpha-Omega and finds the rest of the apes are being held in labour camps, while a sanctioned US battalion is on its way to take out Alpha-Omega.
Director Matt Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback apparently rented a cinema screen and watched hundreds of films in between the making of Dawn… and the scripting of this film – it shows as there are many references to classic war films, both obvious and subtle, littered throughout.
A piece of graffiti reading “Ape-ocalypse Now” is designed to raise a snigger but The Colonel’s shaven headed demagogue would have fit in nicely in Coppola’s epic; the idea to use tunnels as a way to escape the prison recalls The Great Escape and numerous war films employing the same tactics; one of the turncoat apes is a huge red gorilla called “Donkey”.
But don’t be fooled into thinking this is 140 minutes of affectionate homage, far from it – the main thrust is less a the fight between man and ape but a timely reminder of the ravages of war. Forget that the prisoners are apes (and we do, thanks to the flawless CGI) and the one suffering the most, this is about a man with despotic ideas of reclaiming the land in the name of his people and he has the means to do it.
The Colonel has a back story and it is a tragic one but in true bellicose fashion his sense of rationale has been defenestrated and his only solution is to wipe out the apes. It is quite startling to think that this script was written by two Americans as it shows none of the usual patriotism and flag waving rhetoric that usually permeates through US war films; if anything there is palpable scorn to the portrayal of Alpha-Omega.
In one of the more ironic moments, Caesar attacks The Colonel after he brags about killing his family, only to be accused of being “too emotional”. And that in essence is the gist of the narrative, that these so-called animals are more human than the humans themselves. And to further drive this message home, Caesar and his advisor Maurice (Karin Konoval) find a mute girl Nova (Amiah Miller) and treat her as one of their own, proving to be a useful ally later on.
Providing comic relief is a hermit chimp Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), another drifter Caesar and co. pick up who again plays a big part in the rescue mission. This levity may seem a little inappropriate amidst the killing and violence meted out in the prison camp, but Reeves picks his moments and doesn’t go for big laughs, just enough to temporarily take the edge off the bleakness of the drama.
As with the previous films in this series we are wholly on the side of the apes from the onset but as suggested earlier, we stop seeing them as simians and instead we relate to them and sympathise with them as fellow humans. The persecution incurred after the Simian Flu that closed the events detailed in Rise… is unfair since the apes were subject to human experiments in the first place but ignorant bigots don’t let facts get in the way of discrimination.
Caesar was always a leader concerned with establishing peace but his inherent primal instincts as an ape will always be a part of him, awakened by the murder of his family. Caesar fights to protect his kinfolk and to defend the place of the apes on this earth but even saints have a level of tolerance. It may sound sappy but the script does an excellent job in balancing these two sides of Caesar’s personality whilst juxtaposing them with the flawed sophistry of The Colonel.
It is one of the bigger travesties of the Oscars that this series hasn’t done better in the awards stakes for the SFX as the CGI-motion capture of the apes is nothing short of phenomenal. Only receiving nominations but never the win, surely the tide must turn with this film and WETA will finally get that Oscar in 2018, otherwise the academy deserving pelting with monkey poo. Credit too for the incredible performance of Andy Serkis, out acting everyone visible human on the screen.
Woody Harrelson unleashes a sadistic sociopathic side to him as The Colonel but it is newcomer Amiah Miller who proves to be a true delight of the film. The cinematography captures the verdant beauty of the forests in the beginning and the picturesque vistas of the snow covered mountains in the second half, whilst the oppressive austerity of the labour camp has a pervasive Nazi quality to it.
Action, philosophy, social commentary, light comedy, exceptionally impressive visuals, empathy, deep personal resonance and an intelligent twist on an old theme, War For The Planet Of The Apes shows how war epics and trilogy finales (?) should be done and that the blockbuster mentality doesn’t always have to mean style over substance.
Film of the year? We’ll see but a strong contender nonetheless!
Rating – **** ½
Man In Black