WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES – Review
And just a week after the highly entertaining reboot of the web-slinger, here comes another franchise reboot, but rather than a first entry, here’s the third chapter, the rumored final one (only the grosses will tell) of a trilogy launched six years ago. But its roots go back nearly 50 years (we’re getting into Bond territory). Oh, and this is really the second reboot (first one didn’t…take). That original ancestor is that 1968 classic PLANET OF THE APES, the movie that gave Charlton Heston an iconic role not from biblical times, rather it established him as a science fiction star (mainly in dour futures as with THE OMEGA MAN and SOYLENT GREEN). Sure Chuck brought the adults in and made it “respectable”, but for the younger set, the flick was all about the fabulous simian make-ups enveloping some great character actors. Those John Chambers designed prosthetics continued on through four sequels and a prime-time live action TV series, along with countless toys, comic books, trading cards, and a Saturday-morning cartoon. By the late 70’s the fans had moved on to STAR WARS and their ilk, so “Ape City” was shuttered until Fox decided to bring them back for a new generation, guided by the director who made Batman a mega movie star, Tim Burton. But this was not a match made in movie heaven, despite the imaginative make-up work by Oscar-winner Rick Baker. After a lukewarm box office reception, the apes would go into hibernation for ten years, until director Rupert Wyatt helmed a reboot that was actually a “prequel” to that 68′ original. It was about “the beginning of the end”, focusing on the man-made virus that caused the RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. The other big change was in the looks of the apes themselves. Computer technology backed “motion capture” (mo-cap) had brought the creature Gollum (along with many other ‘beasties’) to vivid life in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. That new effects innovation, rather than foam and latex, could turn human actors into virus-enhanced simians. And who would play the chimp Caesar, the ape leader? None other than Gollum himself, Andy Serkis. Matt Reeves took over the series reigns in 2014 with DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, which had Caesar leading the charge against the human military out to eradicate them. Those battles led right into the final battles for Earth, as Reeves now delivers the final curve of the ‘arc’ , the WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES.
The film begins with quiet, not chaos. A band of heavily armed human soldiers are quietly converging on a densely wooded area in the American Northwest, not long after sunrise. But, what is this? There are a number of apes helping them?! But how? Before we learn the answer, the group is attacked by a huge band of apes. They capture a few of the humans and the traitor apes. One soldier talks, saying that they were sent by the infamous ape-hating human soldier known only as “The Colonel” to track down the long-in-hiding ape ‘king’ Caesar. And suddenly the simian ‘phantom’ appears, the enigmatic chimp himself (Serkis). Despite pleas from his ape brothers, Caesar decides to release the humans (“Apes not kill”), but their gorilla helpers will stay behind (later they revealed that the humans offered them mercy, protection, and food). The peace doesn’t last a day. Under the cover of darkness, the hidden cave home of the apes is attacked by forces led personally by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). After the soldiers retreat (with their ape helpers), Caesar must deal with the tragedy left in their wake. He will track down The Colonel and his troops, not for revenge, but to start a ‘dialogue’. But he won’t be alone, as several apes, including Rocket (Terry Notary) and the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval). join him on the trail. Along the way they befriend a young mute human girl (Amiah Miller) and enlist an ape who escaped a human research facility, one who has mastered speech much like Caesar (the others converse in sign language), who refers to himself by the name given to him by his captors, “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn). Reluctantly ‘BA’ guides them to The Colonel’s fortress, where he has taken all the apes from the caves, including Caesar’s tiny son, and enslaved them. They work to exhaustion building a wall around the compound. To keep something out? To keep them in? Caesar and his crew will not stop until they free their ape family and prevent The Colonel from continuing his mad plan of ape extinction.
Despite their CG “jumpsuit” the actors still manage to convey the most subtle emotions, saying volumes with through their eyes and punctuated with superb body language. This newest work proves why Serkis is the “go to guy” when it comes to ‘mo-cap’. This is not to short change the immense contributions of the artists and technicians behind all the spectacular simians, but Mr. S makes Caesar one of the most charismatic, dynamic action heroes of this or any other blockbuster summer movie. He commands our attention, much like one of the classic, tormented royals of the Shakespeare plays. But, there’s a scene-stealer in the midst, a “Bad Ape’ that’s very good indeed, portrayed by the comically gifted Mr. Zahn. As he scurries about in his frayed “ski bum” attire, Zahn brings a manic, edgy energy to every scene, but he still let’s us see his shattered soul. BA seems scared of everything, with very good reason, even as he’s hilariously possessive of the most useless junk (“Put down! Mine!”). I’d also single out the understated work of Ms. Konoval as Maurice, the lumbering, sad-eyed consultant who’s a Buddha-like conscience to Caesar. Thankfully, this hero has an equally interesting villain in Harrelson, who is banal, dead-eyed evil incarnate as The Colonel (perhaps a nod to the mad Kurtz of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”). He’s nearly impossible to ‘read’, never giving you a warning to his next deadly action. When his agenda is finally revealed, Harrelson’s matter-of-fact delivery will send a chill up your spine. Also of note is the delicate performance of Miller as the apes’ “pet” who is a reminder to them that there still may be some humanity left in those violent, aggressive humans.
Reeves keeps the pace taught with dread and suspense, only lightening the atmosphere with the welcome comic relief of BA. In the film’s last act, it goes from a journey right from THE SEARCHERS to a prison or POW escape thriller, that loses a bit of the tension with one too many “test of the wills” between ape and man. The action sequences are riveting, though some of the quickened editing tricks make for some confusion (all those camo clothes and fur, I suppose). Still the flick is a technical marvel, with the apes looking and moving much better than they did in the two previous installments. Like Gollum, and more recently Kong and Groot, they’ve gone beyond playful pixels and become truly compelling dramatic characters. Fans of the series will be dazzled by the apes and should find a most satisfying conclusion to a world turned upside-down in WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. They may just go ‘bananas’ for it (aw, just couldn’t resist, darn’ it).
4 Out of 5