War for the Planet of the Apes Review: Humanity is Both Damned and Dirty

Photo Credit:http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/herocomplex/la-et-hc-trailers-war-for-the-planet-of-the-apes-doctor-who-20161209-story.html

There’s something old school about War for the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves’ second entry in a trilogy nobody really asked for, but that we really didn’t end up deserving anyway. But it’s retro vibe isn’t laced into its scenery, like a go-for-broke attempt to recreate the look of an older film 40 or 50 years later (looking at you Force Awakens), it’s in the plotting and it’s strong sense of purpose. Too often blockbusters today are made as part of a studio’s cognitive machine. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize, or the result is too much fun to want to recognize it, but then comes along a film like War to remind us what a blockbuster looks like when a director’s vision is uncompromising.

Several years after the events of Dawn, Caesar (Andy Serkis) has established his hidden ape colony in the woods of California. The film reintroduces us to the trilogy’s unlikely hero by way of an emotional POV shot that shows him walking through the society he built, with apes literally looking up to him and offering their respect. But unlike the historical figure he’s named after, Caesar is not a tyrant, instead a kind leader who only wants peace for his ever-evolving species. It’s humanity that ruins that peace.

Shortly after a violent attack on the colony in the film’s opening scene, we’re introduced to the Colonel (a sinister Woody Harrelson), the first villain of the trilogy to have any depth to him. His confrontations with Caesar, as well as an exposition heavy monologue that would irk if only Harrelson didn’t deliver it with such gusto, position him as the ape leader’s human foil. Caesar makes complicated decisions in the film that push him closer to that foil, continuing the trend started in Dawn to richen this series with difficult ethical quandaries. Ultimately, however, War is a film about figuring out one’s purpose. Caesar’s closest allies throughout the trilogy, most notably Maurice (Karin Konoval), see one thing in their leader, while tragic events cause him to see another.

It’s this emotional richness in the narrative and it’s characters that not only makes War a better film than the two that preceded it, but one of the most significant sci-fi films of the decade. Part of that is of course due to the so-good-it’s-insane motion capture effects (in most shots, the CG is indistinguishable from the real-world environment, a far cry from any recent Marvel flick). But motion capture is only as good as the commitment the actor makes to a role that essentially puts them in pajamas covered in light bulbs. He’s proven it before—but there’s no harm in saying it again—Andy Serkis is the best there is in the mo-cap game. He is truly the film’s best special effect, making us believe the moral complexities within a chimpanzee. This trilogy would not work as well without him, and it’s time once again to remind audiences (and critics) that Serkis is not only a serious actor but a very good one.

So much of the plot of the film has been left refreshingly unspoiled by the trailers (even the meaning of the title isn’t quite what it seems), which makes discussing any more of Caesar’s personal arc through the story dangerous to those who want to go in fresh. But I will say that the transition from the first act to the second is pretty slow. Audiences that remain open-minded will absolutely be rewarded, as the third act is a marvel in every sense of the word (action, emotion, social commentary), but this film, though all-around better than its predecessor, doesn’t quite boast the elegant pacing of Dawn.

Still, the ending sticks the landing in a way that is no less complex than the two hours before it, but thoroughly satisfying, beautiful, and resolute. War is a challenging film, and it’s ending is pretty bleak from a certain point of view. But like the greatest science fiction out there, it gives a perspective on humanity that is provocative and legitimately worrying in its parallels to our world. All while making us care for a computer-generated monkey. If that’s not movie magic, I don’t know what is. Grade: A-

By Matt Dougherty

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