Movie Review: “War For the Planet of the Apes” (PG-13)

Movie Review: "War For the Planet of the Apes"Is “War For the Planet of the Apes” the strongest entry in this this incredibly thoughtful trilogy inspired by a film series that began way back in 1968? It may be too early to make that kind of proclamation, but one thing is certain: “War” is the most challenging, complex, and ambitious of the three — and that’s saying a lot, because “Rise” and “Dawn” had a lot to say.

As “War For the Planet of the Apes” begins, five years have passed since war was waged during the final moments of “Dawn.” Caesar (Andy Serkis) has become the stuff of legend during a time of battle, but this stoic primate fights for the same reasons he’s always fought: to protect the ones he loves and to survive. Of course, many of the humans (and apes) engaged in this war fight for entirely different reasons, and their perception of who Caesar really is are wildly skewed. Among those humans is The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a monstrous and hateful military man who will do virtually anything to ensure that the human race is the dominant race. He takes the term “survivalist” to the absolute extreme. Suffice it to say, the conditions under which Caesar and The Colonel meet face to face for the first time are devastating — so devastating, in fact, that Caesar is ultimately sent on a harrowing  journey filled with anger, hate, compassion, reflection, and self-discovery.

Joining him on that journey are Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), three loyal companions who are the very voices of reason in a horrific time of war. Along the way, Caesar’s eyes are opened even further when crossing paths with a young mute girl called Nova (Amiah Miller) and a lovable if slightly aloof primate affectionately referred to as Bad Ape (Steve Zahn).

Each of the films in this stunning trilogy has served as an allegory of sorts for the world in which we live. But each entry has also served as an epic standalone movie while working towards a larger overall arc. “War For the Planet of the Apes” is certainly no different. It continues the threads established by its predecessors and reintroduces us to familiar characters but still manages to create a world and tone wholly original unto itself. In this regard, this re-envisioning of the “Apes” brand (I suppose it’s really more of a prequel series, but it takes place in a different timeline, so take that as you will) creatively mirrors Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy. Thankfully, though, this third chapter works more successfully than “The Dark Knight Rises” did.

Director Rupert Wyatt deserves a lot of credit for laying down the foundation that was “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” but the gifted Matt Reeves took the ball and ran with it in a big way. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” had all the spectacle you could ever want in a big summer tent pole release, but like “Rise” before it, the spectacle was merely dressing. These films are about character, and they overflow with a kind of emotional complexity that we very rarely see in the Hollywood blockbusters these days. That trend continues in “War For the Planet of the Apes”

Caesar’s journey in this picture is not at all what I expected, and a brilliant Andy Serkis sums up all of humanity in a beautifully nuanced performance that is as heartfelt as it is unforgettable. Serkis displays a vast array of emotions here. This is to say nothing of his stunning physicality. Again, though, it all goes back to emotional complexity. Caesar falls on extremely dark times in this picture. He’s constantly haunted by visions of his fallen brother Koba (Toby Kebbell), and at times, Caesar questions whether or not his mindset is really all that different from that of his once trustworthy and loyal friend. Serkis plays this stuff with so much passion and such commitment that it’s downright impossible to imagine anyone else in this incredibly dynamic role.

Serkis is constantly referred to as the king of motion-capture acting, and while that might be true, that label does this wonderful performer a bit of a disservice. He’s just an extraordinary actor, period! I’ll continue to echo a sentiment shared by many of those who have worked with Serkis: This isn’t motion capture. It’s emotion capture. This series uses technology as an enhancement, not a foundation, and as long as there are actors like Serkis out there, that recent fear that actors will one day be replaced by computers should be put to rest.

As straight-up amazing as Serkis is, their are other terrific performances throughout “War For the Planet of the Apes.” Konoval, Notary, and Adamthwaite are superb as the loyal primates who will do anything to protect and aid Caesar in the battlefield and in life. Young Amiah Miller is sweet and gentle as the quiet human who serves as a constant reminder to a conflicted Caesar that not every human is an evil one.

As Caesar’s adversary, Woody Harrelson brings villainy in spades. He’s pretty terrifying here, and those who found Samuel L. Jackson’s hateful military man in the other big 2017 ape movie, “Skull Island,” to be thin and cartoony, you should find Harrelson’s The Colonel to be a character of considerably more depth. This guy is scary but weirdly sympathetic, and in many ways, he’s a bit of a coward blinded by hate and fear. No matter how you feel about The Colonel and his motivation, there’s no doubt that Harrelson is strong in the role. Look no further than an effective, downright disturbing monologue he delivers in which he reflects on an exchange he once had with someone close to him. This stretch of dialogue essentially sums up who this man is.

Of the entire stellar cast, it’s Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape that a lot of folks will be talking about as this somber and undeniably edgy movie comes to a close, and it goes beyond the much-needed comic relief provided by this endearing character. Zahn has excelled at playing quirky, nutty, and lovable throughout his career, but he takes all of those attributes to a new level in “War For the Planet of the Apes.” He’s an absolute ray of light in a dark movie that often needs it. I’m not sure who or what inspired Bad Ape’s persona, but Crispin Glover (“Back to the Future”) sure seems like a safe bet.

As the title of this film plainly suggests, this is a movie about war. Not only a war between humans and apes, but also the war within Caesar’s fractured soul. “War” is heavy-handed to a certain degree. Be it the words “Monkey Killer” written on a soldier’s helmet, all the talk of building a wall, and the sight of the title “Ape-ocalypse Now” painted on the inner walls of a cave, there’s no doubt that Reeves and his writing partner Mark Bomback have taken current events and the idea of history repeating itself to the next level — but these are smaller moments in an epic, undeniably ambitious movie. And again, this is an allegory, so this these things are to be expected.

Themes of battle and the art of war are obviously at the very heart of this film, but there’s also a grand sense of hope, compassion, and optimism flowing throughout the picture as well. “War For the Planet of the Apes” also clearly offers up a spiritual undercurrent. The tale of Moses immediately springs to mind, and there are plenty of moments in this picture when one might feel like “The Passion of the Ape” might have been a more appropriate title.

Joking aside, “War For the Planet of the Apes” is breathtaking stuff. There are times when there’s a bit too much going on, but there’s no doubt that this movie is a thing of absolute beauty. Matt Reeves directed the crap out of the proceedings, and the technology that has aided in bringing these apes to life has jumped considerably in detail from each movie to the next — so much, in fact, that Reeves has chosen to shoot a shocking but welcome number of closeups. Yes, he and cinematographer Michael Seresin often pull back, allowing us to see the pure scope of this world. There are shots of apes riding horseback through snowy landscapes and across beautiful beaches as well as bleak masters of a horrible prison camp. But when it comes to the character stuff, it’s all about faces, and when we see these faces, that’s when all the emotional gravitas comes to the forefront. The visual effects on display and the stunning locations are truly breathtaking, but it’s the actors and the fashion in which they’ve brought these apes and humans to life that make this such a rich and thoughtful experience.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Wonder Woman,” “Baby Driver,” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” are all incredibly entertaining summer movies, but for my money, the 2017 summer movie season really starts with “War For the Planet of the Apes.” This movie has big ideas and a big heart to go along with the stunning visuals and the pure spectacle of it all. Yes, there are flaws and heavy-handed moments, but pulling back and looking at the big picture, I was in absolute awe of this movie. Again, it’s too early to say if this is the best of the three, but why bother choosing when you can watch them all? Simply put, Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves have created one of the greatest trilogies of all time.

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