War for the Planet of the Apes

Reader, there is a phrase that haunts the critic: Should he use it in a review, or will the decisive finality it denotes turn away an audience automatically suspicious of what the kids today call "hype?" That phrase consists of three simple words: "of all time." It implies ultimate coverage of the entirety of that art form, and it sparks the question of whether the critic's arrogance has led him to this moment. How, after all, can the critic invoke "of all time" unless there is a degree of certainty? And from where does the degree of certainty originate? Is it merely a gut feeling, or are there years of history for reference?

I bring this up because I believe that War for the Planet of the Apes is among the greatest blockbusters of all time (There it is) and wonder how to sell this idea without sounding too hyperbolic. The achievement on the part of co-writer/director Matt Reeves (as well as his co-screenwriter Mark Bomback) is a tremendous one: He handles combat warfare with the aplomb of the filmmakers of yore who popularized it. He balances the tough and brutal twists and turns in the storytelling with the skill of a great tragedian and then, just when the viewer might be wishing for something to provide levity, introduces entirely organic comic relief that never interrupts anything (and, when it comes to being funny, succeeds greatly).

Those are the broad achievements, and then there are the more specific ones - for instance, the technological innovation that was, it turns out, only hinted at in the previous installments of this franchise (2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes and 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). The apes in question, motion-captured from the actors performing the roles, interact with the live-action humans here in a way that is so convincing it occasionally boggles the mind. There are also exactly two sequences that contain expository information of unseen events through dialogue (One is a recap of the finale of the previous installment, and the other provides context at a crucial moment), and the right to incorporate that usually lazy storytelling conceit is earned in both cases.

The story of this final installment, following the uprising of intelligent apes in the first film and the onset of war with the survivors of a global outbreak of disease in the second, finds Caesar (Andy Serkis) at the front of an extended conflict in media res at the film's opening. The conflict plays out against both a wide backdrop and on a carefully observed personal playing field. The former comes with the splintering of the apes into factions, part of them following Caesar's philosophy of obtaining peace and the stragglers desiring what the old traitor Koba (Toby Kebbell, appearing in eerie nightmares and visions as the worst of Caesar raises its head) wanted, which was vengeful warfare.

Those opposed to Caesar have attached themselves to the Alpha-Omega group, led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson in an outstanding performance that somehow locates the desperation beneath his psychotic actions), whose team infiltrates the apes' hideout. The Colonel kills Caesar's wife and elder son, and that sends Caesar, faithful orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval, providing heaps of compassionate moral clarity when necessary), and a couple of lieutenants on a mission of justice that looks a lot, to Maurice, like revenge. Along the way, they encounter a mute girl (played by Amiah Miller) whose condition proves more important than anticipated and Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), the comic relief in question, whom they hire as guide to the military camp at which the Colonel and his men are stationed.

What follows alternates between thrilling and despairing - inspiring and devastating - as the group mounts a daring prison break from the Colonel's military camp, in which apes are forced to work without sustenance or mercy. Long stretches of silence (partly due to Reeves' patience with difficult material, partly because of the need for Sign between the apes, and partly because of the subplot involving the inability to speak verbally on the part of some characters) bridge the gap between phenomenally effective action set pieces, which commonly come in bursts before an extended climax that plays for ultimate impact (helped by Michael Giacchino's rumbling, instantly iconic compositions in the score and cinematographer Michael Seresin's bleak but gorgeous apocalypse).

Serkis' contributions must not be ignored, either, as the actor delivers his best work as the embattled ape, conveying a bevy of conflicted emotions and conflicting motivations through the obvious barrier of motion-capture animation. The eyes are far from dead here, the movements far removed from the Uncanny Valley, meaning that a great emotional weight isn't lost in the shuffle of visual effects. The same can be stated throughout War for the Planet of the Apes, a great film and another high watermark for blockbuster filmmaking that strips the term "blockbuster" of its usual pomp-and-circumstance routine and reintroduces it to the phenomenon of genuine introspection.

Film Information

Andy Serkis (Caesar), Woody Harrelson (The Colonel), Steve Zahn (Bad Ape), Karin Konoval (Maurice), Amiah Miller (Nova), Terry Notary (Rocket), Ty Olsson (Red Donkey), Michael Adamthwaite (Luca), Gabriel Chavarria (Preacher), Judy Greer (Cornelia), Sara Canning (Lake), Devyn Dalton (Cornelius), Toby Kebbell (Koba).

Directed by Matt Reeves and written by Reeves and Mark Bomback.

Rated PG-13 (sci-fi violence/action, thematic elements, disturbing images).

140 minutes.

Released on July 14, 2017.

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