War for the Planet of the Apes

Posted June 26, 2017 by in

Quick Stats

Genre: sci-fi, western, war
Director: Matt Reeves
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Actors: Toby Kebbell, Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson
Length: 2 hours 22 minutes
Release Date: 7-14-2017
Studio: Chernin Entertainment
What We Thought

War for the Planet of the Apes runs the gamut of movie genres, referencing many classics, as if in salute to cinema itself.

by Daniel Hodgson
Full Article
Films about the past or future are really about the present.  1952’s High Noon reflected on the Red Scare, while 2013’s futuristic Snowpiercer explored contemporary class warfare.  Created in a political and social context, movies serve as commentary about now, and War for the Planet of the Apes is no exception.
     The film takes place fifteen years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  If you’re new to the reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise, it’s not necessary to start with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, however, I would recommend catching up on 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  It’s an entertaining film, and fairly good, and it establishes the post-apocalyptic world as well as the relationships between the simian characters.  If you saw it and liked it, this is even better.
     If you haven’t, I’ll catch you up to speed.  In the near future, war has broken out between intelligent apes and the final remnants of mankind.  The apes are lead by Caesar, a wise and noble chimpanzee, capable of speech after genetic experiments.  The man-made virus that gave him and his kind intelligence also killed most of humanity, who now hunt for Caesar.  Hiding deep in the forest, the apes are discovered by a squad of human soldiers as the film begins.
     Director Matt Reeves, who also helmed the previous Apes movie, builds the suspense expertly leading up to the opening battle.  The soldiers stalk through the woods, careful not to make a sound.  The violence that erupts is depicted as it should be: thrilling, but not without a sense of terrible tragedy.  The apes are victorious, while only four humans survive.  Caesar lets them go, believing that it will send a message of peace.  He comes to regret that decision gravely.
     Suffering deep personal loss, Caesar abandons his people to pursue a quest for revenge.  It’s a brilliant inciting incident, reminiscent of The Outlaw Josey Wales, which Reeves lists as one of the film’s many influences.  Rocket (Terry Notary), a chimpanzee, and Maurice (Karin Konoval), an orangutan, accompany Caesar on his journey.  Along the way, they encounter a mute human girl (Amia Miller), and Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a kooky codger of a chimp who provides comic relief.  Woody Harrelson plays the man they’re after, Colonel McCallough, who portrays him like Marlon Brando’s mad renegade in Apocalypse Now, down to his head tilts and pregnant pauses in his line delivery.
     The Bridge on the River Kwai is another of the film’s homages, in how Caesar finds himself captured behind enemy lines, imprisoned and forced to work (a line of dialog is lifted straight from that film as well).  This happens late in the running time, and the film re-establishes what kind of movie it is:  the prison escape film.  The shift requires adjustment, but the film regains its footing quickly enough.  War film, western, biblical epic, science fiction, War for the Planet of the Apes runs the gamut of movie genres, referencing many classics, as if in salute to cinema itself.
     It’s in the POW camp that War of the Planet of the Apes becomes overtly political.  From the film’s start, apes who betray Caesar are labeled “donkeys” by their human masters because they carry supplies like a donkey would.  Is it coincidence that the donkey is also a political mascot?  I think not.  Consider what Colonel McCullough wants them to do, and why.  Spoilers:  the apes are forced to build a wall; McCullough fears loss of language and culture, and the apes are to blame.  The film is a statement about the dangers of nationalism (and the racism that implies) that has overtaken our country.  The story warns us that it could be our downfall.
     The special effects are just as impressive as the 2014 film, with the CGI apes getting more screen time here than in the previous installment.  Most of the time, I forgot I was looking at special effects and accepted the apes as real.  What’s truly impressive is how the effects are able to convey the abstract:  there is kindness in the eyes of Maurice, who functions as Caesar’s conscience.  However, that such a telling characteristic is conveyed is also a testament to the motion capture actors, whose performances form the basis of the film.  Without Andy Serkis, there would no Caesar, and no War for the Planet of the Apes.
     The film is the best of the new trilogy.  Reeves, who also cowrote the film, focuses on the apes this time, and demonstrates economy of characters similar to his earlier film Let Me In.  Both are sensitive films, with tender moments between characters, such as when a gorilla puts a flower in the human child’s hair.  This is a bigger, more ambitious film than his 2011 horror film, but it does a great job of balancing personal moments between characters against the spectacle of battles and journeys through nature, which plays a role in the film’s climax.  Shots of the apes riding their horses across the wilderness recall great westerns.  The ape village can be thought of as a pocket of civilization threatened by an outsider, namely mankind.
     I enjoyed the film immensely, and was haunted by its beautiful, melancholic score after I left the theater.  War for the Planet of the Apes is the best movie of the summer so far of the big budget, studio tentpole films such as Wonder Woman, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, and so on.  I have been writing reviews for over five years now, and on many occasions I’ve said that a movie is good.  This is the first time, however, that I’ve written this:  this movie is good.  5 stars.

About the Author

Daniel Hodgson

Daniel has a degree in film from the University of Texas at Austin, and writes about himself in the third-person, because that's the fashion.


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