Sunday, July 16, 2017

REVIEW: War for the Planet of the Apes


In the rarefied air of "film twitter," of which I am a sometimes reluctant member, reboots and sequels are usually frowned upon. Thanks to the tentpole strategies of the major studios, each new "summer" movie season (now effectively running from March onwards) feels almost like a replica of the last. But as this atypically strong year for blockbusters has proven, these box-office driven spectacles can still deliver inspired, quality art. One prime example now playing in theaters is "War for the Planet of the Apes", the utterly amazing conclusion (well, until the studio decides to greenlight another one) to the latest trilogy of Planet of the Apes films. Though it is both a reboot and a sequel, it feels as fresh and visionary as the brilliant 1968 original.

In "War for the Planet of the Apes", the protagonists of the story are unambiguously the apes, lead by their leader Caesar (Andy Serkis), a highly intelligent chimpanzee. Following the events of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes", an ongoing war has erupted between them and the humans. Hiding out in the woods, Caesar still hopes for peace. But an attack is soon unleashed on the ape clan, with the aid of treacherous apes who assist the humans. With their home no longer safe, the remaining apes venture out to find a new sanctuary. But Caesar takes the violence personally and sets out on his own quest to confront the humans and their ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson).

And so begins a war of epic proportions, as Caesar and the refugees set out on divergent, perilous paths. But as much as the narrative is about apes vs. humans, the real focus is on Caesar. In this regard, the film becomes a rich character study of his internal struggle, which wrestles with themes relating to forgiveness, heroism and the great responsibility of being a leader. His is a heavy burden, shouldered with admirable complexity and conveyed superbly through the use of astonishing visual effects and yet another groundbreaking performance by Andy Serkis. Throughout the course of this trio of films, this character has been the cornerstone of the franchise's success. Vastly surpassing your run-of-the-mill CGI, one look into those eyes reveals a living, breathing individual experiencing a gamut of emotions.

Indeed, "you're so emotional" retorts the Colonel when he finally meets face-to-face with Caesar. And it's this strong sense of emotion that guides the narrative. Though the story incorporates a highly entertaining mix of recognizable genre tropes relating to war, holocaust dramas and prison breaks, it never loses sight of its affecting emotional throughline. At the heart of it all, "War of the Planet of the Apes" is a dialogue between compassion vs survival instincts. Is violence essential to survive? Can man and ape coexist? If not, who deserves to inherit the earth?

In answering these questions and more, the remarkable script finds tremendous empathy for both points of view. And though the Colonel admits that the apes have achieved superiority, there is still a sense of a level playing field, which makes the outcome of the war so gripping and intriguing. Neither ape nor man feels invincible. But as the film smartly concludes - in what is essentially a sly allegory for climate change - nature will ultimately prevail.

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