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

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

Directed by: Matt Reeves

Premise: Picking up two years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis) hides in the woods of the Pacific Northwest with his fellow simians while a ruthless military colonel (Woody Harrelson) attempts to exterminate the apes.

What Works: War for the Planet of the Apes is presumably the closing chapter of this series. At the very least, it completes the story arc begun in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and it’s a satisfying conclusion. Among the admirable qualities of the Apes pictures, both past and present, is the way that each film is distinctly different from one another and advances the story and the world these characters inhabit. Unlike some sequels which rehash familiar scenarios and keep running over the same maxims, the trilogy of Rise, Dawn, and War for the Planet of the Apes has done an excellent job of developing its story and characters. In the first film, the apes achieved consciousness and the undoing of mankind was set in motion. In the middle chapter, the apes fought internally over the direction of their civilization while Caesar tried to forge a sustainable peace with the surviving humans. War for the Planet of the Apes smartly reacts to the events of Dawn and advances the story and themes of the series. The apes are faced with an existential crisis when a brutal military leader takes it upon himself to wipe them out. Simian leader Caesar does not want to fight but he does want to protect his people and the military conflict parallels Caesar’s internal struggle to maintain his goodness. Like the best of the classic Apes films, the storytelling of War takes some dark turns and the filmmakers raise the stakes while delving into themes of survival and civilization. This is smart and ambitious storytelling, much more so than we typically get from a Hollywood tent pole movie, and the film is infused with contemporary relevancy. Another of the impressive qualities of this run of Planet of the Apes films has been the visual effects. The apes are digital creations but they have the same texture and mass as the physical actors. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes reached a pinnacle of motion capture performance and so there’s no significant step up in this movie. But the apes are integrated even more seamlessly into the physical spaces and War achieves a higher level of detail in the ape’s expressions, which allows for an even more nuanced performance.

What Doesn’t: Concluding chapters of motion picture trilogies are frequently clumsy as seen in The Godfather: Part III and The Dark Knight Rises. War for the Planet of the Apes is better than the average trilogy capper but it is strained by a need to wrap everything up. The moviemakers attempt to advance the story world to something that resembles the original 1968 Apes film and that requires prioritizing the plot over the characterization. As a result, War for the Planet of the Apes does not achieve the complexity of Dawn, especially in its characters, and the story isn’t as perfectly shaped. This is a slower movie than the typical Hollywood tent pole release; it has the requisite action but the story of War for the Planet of the Apes is paced in a way that recalls an older style of filmmaking. The picture also plays slower because it is weighed down by self-importance. As often happens when a series hits its third chapter, War for the Planet of the Apes presumes its own gravitas and the filmmakers include very obvious allusions to Biblical stories and historical atrocities. The filmmaking gets heavy handed especially in the use of concentration camp imagery and visual allusions to 1956’s The Ten Commandments. Some of the references to other movies are also a little too obvious or spelled out on screen, especially the parallels with Apocalypse Now.

Bottom Line: War for the Planet of the Apes is a good finale to an outstanding series of films. The picture isn’t quite as good as its immediate predecessor and it’s hobbled by its pretentiousness but this is a smart and ambitious movie.

Episode: #657 (July 23, 2017)