Wednesday, 19 July 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

After my disappointment with the last half of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I’m not sure why I went to see the finale so soon after its release. But at least this time I didn’t allow the critical acclaim to unduly raise my expectations. As a result, I actually enjoyed War for the Planet of the Apes much more than I thought I would, more than either of the first two films. 

This appreciation is all the more surprising when you consider that this is a relentlessly dark and violent film. As the title suggests, War for the Planet of the Apes is all about war, from beginning to end, war between humans and apes, between humans and humans, and even a little between apes and apes. By now you should all know how much I love war films (that is sarcasm, unless we’re talking clear anti-war films). War isn’t glorified in any way in War for the Planet of the Apes, which at least is positive, and, despite its presence throughout, war isn’t even the primary theme of the film, at least not for me. For me, that theme would be survival. Who will survive the chaos following the pandemic caused by a human-made retrovirus? 

I won’t divulge much about the plot. Caesar (Andy Serkis), the intelligent speaking ape, and the group of apes who follow him, are looking for a home far away from the remaining human populations, so they can live in peace. Doesn’t sound like the start of a war film. But Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), who is obviously supposed to remind us of a certain other colonel (Apocalypse Now) is intent on wiping apes off the planet before they take over the world. So he does something horrible (as all evil villains are required to do, so that we want to see them pay for their crimes, preferably in a gruesome death) that Caesar cannot let slide. At this point in the film, I was recalling that in my review of Dawn I had talked about Caesar encouraging forgiveness in others while he, himself, was unable to forgive, and I was shaking my head. But then Maurice, the wise orangutan at Caesar’s side, tells Caesar he is no better than Koba, the ‘bad’ ape from Dawn who was bent on revenge. Okay. Very good. Caesar doesn’t argue the point, but, unfortunately, he isn’t swayed by it either. Which of course means Caesar goes looking for trouble, and finds it. Along the way, he does meet a couple of unique and interesting characters, which add considerable depth to the film, not to mention a little levity, which is clearly needed in a dark film like this.

I won’t say much more by way of detail, but I will make some general observations about the plot. First, like its predecessors, War for the Planet of the Apes is full of mixed messages. For example, it has a number of beautiful humanizing scenes along with some blatantly dehumanizing scenes. But here’s the thing: the former outweigh the latter this time, and, unlike in the first two films, the last half of the film was better than the first (that makes a huge difference to me). Best of all, wait for it, there were hints of imagination this time around. I know, you’re thinking I must have been stoned when I watched the film, because surely Hollywood isn’t capable of imagination in the making of an action/war film like this. I couldn’t believe it either, but there were serious attempts to give us a Caesar worthy of the finale (though always with the mixed messages). I also appreciated the many subtle references to the original film from 1968.

Add in the excellent special effects, great cinematography, Micael Giacchino’s splendid if overwhelming score (his best yet), the best cast of characters in the trilogy (by far), some notably intelligent writing and some noteworthy performances by Serkis, Harrelson and Steve Zahn, and you have the only film in the series that I am awarding ***+ (in spite of the mixed messages - especially evident in the film’s last half hour, which bounced from a great scene to an awful scene to a great scene to an awful scene and so on). My mug is up for the finale.

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