Review: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

War for the Planet of the Apes

Rating

Director

Matt Reeves

Screenplay

Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves

Length

2h 20m

Starring

Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Toby Kebbell, Gabriel Chavarria, Judy Greer, Sara Canning, Devyn Dalton, Aleks Paunovic, Alessandro Juliani

MPAA Rating

PG-13

Original Preview

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Soundtrack

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Source Material

Review

Finding humanity in your characters is the challenge of myriad screenwriters. Trying to give that humanity to creatures who are not exactly human is an added challenge. After six years and three films, the cap to the Planet of the Apes origin trilogy brings the audience to the end of a sorrowful journey of triumph, defeat, and philosophical exploration with as much depth and aplomb as its predecessors.

When the first film of the trilogy was set to release in 2014, audiences were still reeling from the punishing remake of the original 1968 Planet of the Apes in 2001 by fading director Tim Burton. The wounds were still fresh 13 years later and few were genuinely excited at the prospects. The attachment of Cloverfield and Let Me In director Matt Reeves was of further concern.

Once the film was released, everyone was relieved that instead of a pseudo-serious adaptation of the original or a cheesy continuation of that film’s sequels, we were treated to a narratively deep, focused, and pensive exploration of humanity’s relationship with their simian cousins and the societal collapse that would follow a dangerous biological outbreak. The second film confirmed the merits of the first, giving us a more fascinating look at the post-apocalyptic world where man and ape were now living separately, but not entirely peacefully. Fear of others led to desperate acts, which eventually brought about serious conflict. Continuing where the prior film left off, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes explores the nature of family, revenge and loss.

As humanity’s survivors seek to root out and eradicate the simaian threat, Caesar (Andy Serkis) prepares to lead his people out of the Pacific Northwest and to a home far to the east, outside of the threat of encroaching armies. Before they can corral their people for the journey, a midnight attack leaves Caesar with a challenging conundrum: exact revenge for his losses or guide his people away from further decimation. Sending everyone else towards new lands, Caesar embarks on a journey to seek out the vengeful Colonel (Woody Harrelson) and make him pay for what he’s done.

The screenplay, by director Matt Reeves and co-screenwriter Mark Bomback, takes us on a seemingly conventional adventure wherein our protagonist must face his inner demons and potentially betray the very ideals he’s championed in order to bring about justice for crimes committed against him. With the help of a dedicated retinue who refuse to let him go off on his own, the long wintry path brings us closer to a man whose ability to lead is inextricably tied to a past and a future that he seems unable or unwilling to control.

There’s a brazen humanity to this series of films that is uncommon to blockbuster entertainment. While some franchises push toward broadly appealing, lighthearted fare in order to please their fans, this Planet of the Apes trilogy seeks to explore society and its potential breakdown with an effort to understand the human condition through our genetic cousins. It also tackles the depravity and desperation of human civilization as it crumbles and seeks to enact its own brand of revenge.

Serkis turns in another layered performance. He has delivered his best performances while in motion capture attire, a challenge for any actor. Focused on physicality, his performances are as lived-in as any method actor’s roles like those of Daniel Day-Lewis or Joaquin Phoenix. This is true even if his real face is never seen on screen. He deserves some manner of recognition for his brilliant work in the Lord of the Rings films, King Kong, and the Planet of the Apes movies. Whether he receives it or not depends on the Academy’s good graces.

Harrelson, who has played a wide range of parts over time, from heroes to villains and much in between, gives one of his most honest and frightening performances here. This is an actor who has never been afraid to bare his soul before the audience and as villainous and depraved as he is, his reasons are profound, understandable, and, worst of all, human. This is a character that could reside in any one of us. It’s the type of personality that exists in Caesar. It’s how we let it take control of our thoughts and our actions that defines who we are. While Harrelson goes down a decidedly dark path, it’s Caesar’s core strength that enables him to push those abhorrent thoughts aside in the end and, at great personal risk, work to protect others rather than himself.

While the film has serious missteps in the music department and is overly reliant on the comedic touches of Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), this is a movie that asks philosophical questions of significant importance and explores human nature in a fascinating and uncommon way. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a film that requires familiarity not only with the prior two films, but also a basic understanding of what the original purpose of the 1968 Franklin J. Schaffner film was.

It was not about society crumbling, but about humanity and how both good and bad outcomes are possible and that within even the most stubborn and self-reliant people, there will always be those who look out for others before themselves. It’s those types of individuals we must thoroughly understand and nurture in an effort to improve our society as a whole. Giving into our basest natures is seldom the course of action that will better society.

Those themes are at the heart of all three of these films and for all of their minor flaws and frustrations, they are so genuine, thought-provoking, and philosophically compelling that they demand our attention and understanding. They require that we take action and learn how to be better as a society. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is itself the dawn of a renewed civilization, one where the bravest and most principled will be the progenitors.

Oscar Prospects

Probables: Visual Effects
Potentials: Sound Mixing, Sound Editing
Unlikelies: Production Design

Review Written

November 7, 2017

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