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War for the Planet of the Apes

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Matt Reeves

Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Gabriel Chavarria, Judy Greer, Sara Canning, Devyn Dalton, Toby Kebbell

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images)

Running Time: 2:20

Release Date: 7/14/17


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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 12, 2017

The battle that opens War for the Planet of the Apes is, as we'd expect, between humans and apes. We don't expect that the film, which brings to an extremely satisfying close the story of how Earth became a planet run by apes in The Planet of the Apes, will take the humans' perspective during that fight. The perspective is confounded by the fact that there are apes among the human soldiers, serving as lookouts and ammunition carriers. Whose side are we on here, anyway?

That's the big question, one supposes, and this series has repeatedly challenged us to see something worthwhile in the human side of the mounting conflict. Whether it was the laboratory testing in Rise of the Planet of the Apes or the calls to violence when the apes announced peace in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the decency of human beings has been in short supply in this series. By the end of this final installment, it is basically non-existent.

They war with apes. They war with each other. They are at war within themselves. They are aggressors, murderers, and enslavers. Even the most basic act of kindness is returned, not—as the decent thing would be—in kind, but with violence. At the end, we can't even call them human anymore, but that raises another question: Could we call them human at the beginning of the film?

This would be a cynical film—a cynical series, for that matter—if not for the apes. The film's final note is hopeful, even though we basically arrived at a place where the backdrop of the 1968 is possible—a planet where humans are speechless, second-class citizens to an advanced civilization of apes. To its credit, the film doesn't end with all of pieces in place. It trusts that we're smart enough to piece it together on our own. It ends exactly where it needs to, with the ending of the story that has been told in this series.

The climactic battle here isn't, as we might expect, between apes and humans again. It's between two factions of humans, fighting over nothing of any importance—a fortress held by one faction that is grasping at holding on to any dominion on the planet, even if it's only a military base near some snowy mountains in the middle of nowhere. The fight is mostly symbolic. The faceless foes of the human-supremacist group are attacking because the group has splintered from the tribe. There's nothing to win at this point, but almost instinctually, they have to fight.

The battle is in the background, because it doesn't matter to the apes, and by this point in the series, the group of apes is the only thing that matters. They're executing something of a prison break from the fort. If that story point sounds like a cliché from Western, we're just getting started in that regard. At this point, the humans aren't villains anymore. They're more of a minor annoyance. The apes are so close to freedom, but the humans keep shooting and blowing up things for no rational reason.

The apes in this trilogy of films have gone through a pair of evolutions. The first, of course, is the evolution from the animals we know to the intelligent, self-aware beings who could form, maintain, and fight for a civilization of their own design. The second is the execution of visual effects to bring them to life. The previous film seemed like a watershed moment for those effects, given that we had multitudes of apes who appeared realistic and, among a select few, were capable of communicating personality, psychology, and emotion.

Somehow, the effects artists have topped themselves in this entry. There are, perhaps, fewer apes than before, but the main characters are routinely shot in extreme close-up. They're even more convincing this time around, and now, co-writer/director Matt Reeves can give each of them quiet, thoughtful moments as they consider their fate, while wandering the land on horseback.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) returns, with plenty of gray in his hair and clearly tired of fighting. It has been a few years since the previous human-ape conflict, which resulted in the apes being driven into the woods and splintering into their own separate factions. Most remain loyal to Caesar, although some have joined with the humans for self-preservation (The humans call them "donkeys," because they only see these apes as pack animals).

The Alpha-Omega group (both the right name and a clever one, since the film serves as both a beginning and an end) is the human-supremacist force, led by a deranged colonel (played by Woody Harrelson). He attacks the apes in their cave city behind a waterfall, killing Caesar's wife and elder son in the process. Caesar sends the apes away to find a new home, while he and a trio of his closest friends set out to kill the colonel.

The story is, essentially, a Western—a tale of revenge, a group of characters on horseback encountering various obstacles, plenty of gunplay, an eventual rescue mission. There's even an old coot of an ape (played by Steve Zahn), raised in a zoo and unaware that there are other apes like him, who serves as the comic relief.

It's a pretty daring turn by screenwriters Reeves and Mark Bomback, who ignore the opportunity to close out a big-budget series of films with the whiz-bang we might anticipate. Instead, they've offered up a finale that plays out in soft-spoken tones, in close-ups set to firelight or against barren landscapes, and with a level of moral ambiguity. Those moral quandaries have Caesar—a character whose own evolution across these films is pretty staggering within the context that he's a digital creation—questioning whether his opinions on apes and humans, as well as how to deal with the latter, have been the right ones.

All of this is an unexpected but thematically sound way to end a series that always has been more interested in ideas than spectacle. Even the series' spectacle—of giving us convincing digital creations who exist as full-blooded characters—has been more subtle than the usual blockbuster fare. War for the Planet of the Apes is an intimate, thoughtful conclusion.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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