Monday, July 17, 2017

Review: "War for the Planet of the Apes" Ends the Trilogy on a Satisfying Yet Predictable Note

Scene from War for the Planet of the Apes
In a time where spoiler culture is frowned upon, it becomes baffling that a franchise like Planet of the Apes is as popular as it is. After all, the reboot prequels that began in 2011 are building towards the back half of the title. In theory, there should be nothing exciting about seeing the birth of a planet of apes. However, director Matt Reeves has found a way to not only make it compelling, but use revolutionary technology to make gripping stories full of rich empathy and powerful allegories of the modern time. With the final piece of the new trilogy, War for the Planet of the Apes, he gets us to the final destination. Is it satisfying? In a sense, yes. However, it's more of the same from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (for better or worse) and it keeps the story from being more than a dark and sometimes too brooding parable of modern militarism and xenophobic ignorance. It's satisfying, but it's very much the third part of a trilogy at the same time.

One of the most brilliant pieces of this new Apes trilogy is how reliant it is on good technology. Especially with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, there are extended scenes where the camera follows conversation of CG apes communicating about the laws of civility. It becomes incredible to realize that these pieces of altered digital dots are more sympathetic than the human actors whose faces are more familiar. War for the Planet of the Apes expands on this idea by showing the hollowed out husk caused by the previous film's chaos. The world is even more desperate with animosity replacing any chance of understanding. The opening scene is a Platoon-esque battle scene between man and ape. It's a powerful yet misleading scene of what's to come in the trilogy's longest entry. 

Despite the previous entry having a strong violent streak, the apes of War for the Planet of the Apes exist almost to defend themselves from harm. Their leader, Caesar (Andy Serkis, in his second great trilogy as a motion capture character) even admits that he only fights for defense. His enemy, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) has a grudge as personal as Caesar's, as both have suffered casualties that draw them to blood lust. This is the bleakest entry of the trilogy, and does so with intent. There's allegories to slavery and the Holocaust as the apes become imprisoned and forced to build walls for defense. They are second-class citizens, even with heightened intelligence. Caesar, the smartest ape, becomes torn as to how to save his species from imprisonment and likely extinction. The answers, to summarize without giving away much, are dark.

If there's one element of the film that could've been improved upon, it's the relationship between man and ape. Reeves cleverly pits The Colonel and Caesar against each other with very similar motivations. However, the hope of Caesar finding some redemption in humanity feels underwhelming with the presence of Nova (Amiah Miller): the daughter of a man who is accidentally killed by apes. There's a sense that Caesar will give into his paternalistic ways and mirror the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. While Nova is given a significant character arc, it lacks any depth (not unlike the Nova of the original Planet of the Apes) and shows the film's disinterest in showing too much sympathy towards humans as a species. Still, it's a missed opportunity, and one that makes the inevitable tragedy in the third act a little less rewarding. In some ways, this also keeps Caesar's hero militia leader from being more creatively dynamic and interesting.

Yet the film thrives on special effects. It's incredible to think how far the series has come in six years over three films. Whereas Rise of the Planet of the Apes shows some wear in its apes, War for the Planet of the Apes is almost flawless. Every last emotion (or lack thereof in Caesar's case) comes through impressively on each character's face. Even if the third film is at times more conventional and less interesting than the other two, this franchise will at least be remembered for how it elevated the medium. It not only proved the value of films that are gritty reboots and prequels, but showed how close it could come to exploring richer themes beyond which superhero wins a fight. It also should be the calling card for an inevitable Best Motion Capture Performance Oscar, which I would heartily sign a petition for. This franchise embodies the best of modern summer blockbusters' worst tendencies. It also happens to be some of the best films that the series has ever produced.

War for the Planet of the Apes will likely please fans who were knocked sideways after the 2011 film. It manages to capture an intensity and seriousness that is at times breathtaking and others overbearing. Even then, it's a wonder that these films are so popular because of how well audiences know the next act. Even then, they're just so entertaining and have so much value in their subtext that it doesn't matter. This may not be the greatest trilogy to ever happen, but it may be one of the most impressive from this decade alone. Franchises would love to be as gripping and impressive as these films are. Many would love to have something as ridiculous as an ape loading a machine gun and make it look awesome. This is what the potential of summer blockbusters should be, even if it's only visually. Reeves made the Planet of the Apes franchise matter again, and I am forever thankful to him as a result. 

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