Monday, July 17, 2017

War For The Planet Of The Apes: Schindler's Chimps

It shouldn't work. It shouldn't. There's no way there should be three movies about talking monkeys battling humans. And if that is the plot to a movie... it shouldn't be serious.  It should be a comedy, right? No one would go to see this movie. No production company would spend millions upon millions of dollars to make a movie with that idea in mind. There should not be a trilogy of these movies and they should not be making any money. Yet... somehow... it does work. Every time we hear that another one is coming out we immediately do a little eye-roll and giggle assuming it's going to be just as stupid as it sounds. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a surprise because it rebooted the Planet of the Apes franchise in a new, smart, and creative way. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was even more of a surprise because it was basically like a Shakespeare play involving monkeys and it was unexpectedly beautiful and brilliant. I've thoroughly enjoyed both of these films, but even I thought continuing on with the story (a story about talking monkeys at war with human beings) was something silly. Fool me three times... and you've got War for the Planet of the Apes... another great entry into the fighting talking monkey saga that continues its streak of fantastic films.

We are now even further into the future after the events of Dawn have transpired. Caesar (played by genius Andy Serkis) is still the leader of the apes. They're living somewhat peacefully deep in the heart of the forest, just trying to survive. An angry and insane Army Colonel (Woody Harrelson) sends troops into the forest to take the apes out. After many, many casualties (including Caesar's wife and eldest son), the apes realize they need to find a new place to live and hide because they won't be able to survive another attack. Caesar and a small group loyal to him, leave the pack and seek out the Colonel. By the time they reach him, however, he's already intercepted the rest of the apes and put them into what is essentially a monkey internment camp. There they are brutalized, beaten, whipped, and forced into hard labor to build a wall and stronghold for the Colonel. Caesar and his small group, including a new ape, called Bad Ape (voiced perfectly by Steve Zahn), can help save the apes, get them out of the camp, and stop Woody Harrelson before it is the end of the apes for good.

To begin, War for the Planet of the Apes is still, most definitely, a blockbuster summer film. There is plenty here for you to watch, enjoy, and munch your popcorn to. It fits in nicely with the rest of the loud, CGI-riddled summer fare. However, it is a very dark film. And it is not subtle either. When I think of summer blockbusters I think of Transformers. Nothing of substance. Loud. Outrageous. But entertaining. War is here to show us that we no longer have to sit in the dark ages of summer theater. Even though a movie may be loaded with action and CGI, it doesn't mean they can't have substance. War is actually not an easy film to watch. There are many allusions to the Bible, slavery, and the Holocaust. The captured apes are, for lack of a better term, tortured in this movie. And what's worse is it's somehow just as hard to watch humans beat on computerized apes as it is to watch human beings beat on human beings. The cruelty to animals in this movie as an allegory for all of the atrocities we, as actual humans, have committed is visually heart-breaking to sit through. And us viewers are given very little levity in the film to breath before yet another harrowing scene of injustice toward the apes. The message here is clear: we haven't evolved as intelligent beings. In fact, in our current climate, we've de-volved. We study history in school so we are not doomed to repeat it. But, War clearly shows that not only are we repeating it, but we're making even worse mistakes. Director Matt Reeves provides us with a movie showing our faults as human beings with the subtlety of a nuclear blast. It's very difficult to watch, and even harder to digest. However, it is quite necessary. The best part is, it doesn't come out of nowhere. The third film, even though it deals with some very harsh themes, is an organic move forward in the story we have been told thus far.

It's not all hard to watch (I mean, most of it is...), but there is still a great deal of entertainment. I don't want to say it's "fun"... because it's kind of... well... not. But it is entertaining. Each time an ape is tortured, you know in the back of your mind that the person doing it is going to meet an even worse fate (and the film will not let you down here), but it takes a long long long time to get to that point. The film is 140 minutes long and the apes are in dire straits for damn near 120 minutes of that time. But there are some solid action sequences and wonderfully written characters. I love what the writers, and particularly Serkis, have done with the character of Caesar. In Rise, by the end, he could only speak in short one-syllable words. In Dawn he is able to speak in full thoughts and convey most of what he wanted to convey, without the syntax of a full sentence. Now, in War, he is able to speak more eloquently than even most of the human beings I know in real life. It's a nice evolution to the character which plays along well with the theme of the movie. And even though Caesar is a fully animated character, Andy Serkis shines through in the role. Every movement, every mannerism, every facial expression, Serkis comes out in the role. I don't know the rules about nominations, but he definitely deserves an Oscar nod (finally) for his role in the film. He's a marvel to watch and is the leading reason why these movies are so well received. Thankfully and graciously given to us, as well, is the character of Bad Ape. He's a very helpful character, but he's essentially inserted into the film to provide the tiniest bit of levity for the audience to get a chuckle before back to the harrowing scenes of monkey mistreatment.

Also, once again, everything else is gorgeous. Each new Apes movie we're given is just another reminder of the marvel of our technology. Only a few years ago could we still tell when something is crudely animated and it takes us out of the movie. Without this tech, Apes wouldn't work because it is relied heavily upon in all of these movies. Now, there's so much confidence in this technology that  Reeves lingers longer on Apes faces. So many more close-ups on expressions, even in back and forth dialogue. What used to look silly, now leaves us in awe. War for the Planet of the Apes may not be the most fun film in the trilogy, but it is the most intelligent. Unlike Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, the philosophical questions posed in this movie are actually very thought-provoking and challenging. Matt Reeves has shown us that we're never going to be without the explosions of summer movies, but it doesn't mean these movies have to come without a brain. As silly as the stories of these movies are, they really are worth watching.


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