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Hail Caesar In ‘War For The Planet Of The Apes’ (Movie Review)

I remember feeling fairly alone in my anticipation for 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The franchise had lain dormant since Tim Burton’s 2001 remake, and the idea of a prequel/reboot didn’t seem to build into genuine anticipation for many. Regardless, the film was a surprise hit, leading to the massive critical and financial success that was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Now there’s War for the Planet of the Apes, a strong third chapter in a series that takes organic turns as far as the overarching story and makes another incredible case for giving serious awards attention to Andy Serkis. That in mind, his motion-capture performance as Caesar is just one of the many things that have made this iteration of Planet of the Apes so successful.

Where Dawn ended with a failure to create a stable environment for both apes and humans to live peacefully, War opens with the perpetual conflict that has taken a toll since. Two years following the end of the last film, Caesar and his apes have been living on the run and in hiding. A tragedy breaks Caesar’s spirit and sends him down a darker path to go after a vicious human Colonel (Woody Harrelson) obsessed with wiping out the apes. Lines are drawn and certain revelations are made, which place Caesar as the hero to continue championing.

While the film once again wants the audience to feel encouraged watching the continuing journey of the one ape who chose to rise up and everything that took place after, it should be noted that War is an incredibly bleak film. Rise hinted at the darkness to come and Dawn took us into a world where most of humanity had died off, but War has arrived at a place where the last remains of humanity are desperately clinging to their final chances of survival through violent means. It’s not a wonder to see a film as dreary as this taking place during winter.

Director Matt Reeves and writer Mark Bomback have crafted a film that does not shy away from the despair created by this reality. That in mind, this series has been sharp enough to keep a positive focus on the apes, with this movie making the biggest case for why humans don’t deserve what they had. There are many parables and references found throughout this film and within its structure. While that provides a level of attention one can recognize, it’s also part of what holds War back from being the definitive Planet of the Apes film.

Something that pushed Dawn to the next level for me was seeing how it created its take on the apocalypse and played with ideas involving leadership, pitting brother against brother and how misunderstandings lead to further turmoil. The nuance was appreciated and relatable. War is going to even greater, grandiose extremes by making the biblical analogies more overt and having social commentary serve as far more than just subtext. Connections to slavery have always been clear. The ape migration calls to mind the Trail of Tears. Imprisonment and forced labor creates Holocaust imagery.

It’s a bold move by Fox to release a film like this designed to be a summer blockbuster. It may not be R-rated like Logan, but War is incredibly gloomy and attacks various ideas as well as many other adult-oriented mainstream films. However, the issue becomes a matter of whether having such familiar thematic points (in addition to clear inspiration from the likes of Bridge on the River Kwai, Spartacus, etc.) allows the film to hold onto an identity of its own. War falls in line with the previous Apes movies and feels like a logical next step for the series, but it’s also not breaking any new ground as far as what it has to say about war and humanity.

Fortunately, there are plenty of great filmmaking elements to go along with the sophisticated, if familiar, story. Weta Digital continues to exceed expectations as far as seeing entirely CG apes come to life in convincing ways. The level of emotion felt for Caesar, Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary) and others all come down to the collaboration between these actors and the terrific work done by Weta. We’ve come a long way from actors wearing masks and speaking with regal accents.

Cinematographer Michael Seresin does a terrific job of bringing in this wintery landscape to further emphasize the state of these characters. It goes well to provide a different look for the film. There’s also the action sequences which never feel out of place but seem like technical challenges handled wonderfully. With so much done to visually communicate who and where these characters are in their lives, it’s great to see a good amount of thought applied to making things clear in a matter of shots.

Speaking of which, Michael Giacchino puts in a lot of work to make up for what is a mostly dialogue-free film (since the apes mainly speak in sign language). One part of me thinks the film relies a bit too much on Giacchino’s score creating the emotion for the viewer. However, I also can’t deny the effectiveness of the man’s work. Given that Dawn is a more enjoyable watch, it likely comes down to my enjoyment of variety in tones heard in that film.

As far as the actors go, does anything else need to be said about Serkis? The actor has displayed immense talent in the world of motion-capture and once again finds all the right notes to play in delivering a fully-rounded performance as Caesar. Additionally, it’s also worth noting how interesting Steve Zahn is as Bad Ape, the only source of comedic relief in the film. It may distract some, but I feel he’s a necessary presence doing well to make sure we remember we’re watching a summer movie. Finally, Harrelson provides strong work as the main villain given just enough to work with, keeping him from becoming one-dimensional.

I don’t know where things go from here with the Apes franchise, but I’m happy to champion all that we’ve seen in recent years with this series of films. War can feel like both an individual film as well as a great third act to the story that put its focus on Caesar. Fortunately for him, Weta Digital, Reeves and his team were all game to take this seriously and invest real ideas into the pulpy sci-fi idea of exploring the origins of a planet of apes. The results this time around are an engaging drama about individuals doing what they can for survival and it all happens to be packaged in a blockbuster film. Ape movies together strong.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Video Game Player, Comic Book Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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