War for the Planet of the Apes

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I know they’re covered in hair, but I have a hard time believing those apes aren’t cold.

For all the complaining I do about the excess of remakes, reboots, and general attempts to extend a franchise in anyway possible that currently exist in the Hollywood system and how often they fall short compared to what came before, it is worth mentioning that it is, in fact, possible to revisit old material in an effective way. You need look no further than the most recent Planet of the Apes films. Beginning in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes and continuing in 2014 with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, this series has managed to go in a different direction from the previous films while still retaining the quality story telling, science fiction spectacle, and under current of social commentary that has made this franchise (or, at least, the best parts of it) so indelible. And with this year’s War for the Planet of the Apes, I’m happy to say that this series has another stellar entry.

Taking place some years after Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, War, again, centers around the chimpanzee Caesar and his tribe of intelligent apes as they try to establish themselves in a post-apocalyptic world. Due to the events of the previous movie, they are struggling in a conflict against a decreased but still dangerous human population determined to exterminate them. Eventually, this leads to Caesar encountering the Colonel, a ruthless and highly militaristic man who succeeds in capturing nearly all of the apes, including Caesar, putting their future in serious jeopardy.

The story is quite good. It’s paced near perfectly, with excellent flow from scene to scene and nice structure overall. Furthermore, the plot was enjoyably unpredictable. I didn’t know what was going to happen in this movie, and I was pleasantly surprised by some of the turns it took. The stakes in this story are seemingly the highest of the series thus far, and yet it still somehow feels smaller in scale than the last entry (and going by budgets, that is the case, as this one cost less than Dawn). I found that intriguing in a positive way: it’s nice that the filmmakers didn’t feel the need to try to make everything bigger with each new movie. Also, I really appreciated that the material is played very straight and serious; at no point was any necessary drama undercut by inappropriate humor.

In continuing the trend of strong social commentary in the Planet of the Apes series, the film goes after the military-industrial-far-right-nationalist movement — which the Colonel and his men are obviously meant to symbolize — fairly directly. Depending on your politics, you may or may not like that. Personally, though, I thought it was a compelling angle and an organic next thematic step considering the themes of the prior films.

One of the more impressive aspects of these new Planet of the Apes films has been how strongly developed the ape characters have been; and that’s true here as well. All of the apes are very well written and compelling. The motion capture actors do a fantastic job, with Andy Serkis as Caesar deserving special recognition for how much heart he brings to the role. His performance is really something to behold. And while the apes really are the focus in the movie, as long as I’m talking about good performances, Woody Harrelson does a fantastic job as the Colonel, bringing the exact right amount of bravado, insanity, and warped sense of patriotic duty to the role. He really is one of the best supporting actors of this generation.

Beyond narrative and characters, this film boasts impressive production value. The music is terrific, combining various primitive sounds with more traditional orchestration to create a somewhat other-worldly yet still moving score. The cinematography is stellar and is used very effectively to accentuate moods in some places. Lastly, the visual effects are top notch. The apes really do look photo-real this time around. If I didn’t know any better, I would think that the filmmakers used actual trained animals.

I really have nothing bad to say about this film. It works exactly the way it needs to, and it does not really have anything I would consider to be a flaw. This is a solidly crafted work, and everyone involved, especially writer/director Matt Reeves, should be quite proud of themselves. It’s increasingly rare to have a blockbuster of this caliber; and we should be genuinely thankful when it happens.

Now, without giving too much away, it’s worth mentioning the film works as something of a conclusion to the particular narrative told through these last three films. As such, this might be the last Planet of the Apes film for a while. If that’s the case, then it’s a fine note to go out on; though I wouldn’t mind it one iota if the filmmakers and 20th Century Fox saw fit to continue on with a fourth entry. Either way, we have been blessed to have had this series as a reliable source of good filmmaking.

And at any rate, go see this movie. It’s definitely worth it.

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