War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
Dir: Matt Reeves

War, huh, yeah! What is it good for? APE-solutely nothing!

Leading one side in a war he had no desire to start, increasingly advanced ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) now has to contend with a rogue general (Woody Harrelson) whose hard-line views and tactics put him in opposition to apes and humans alike.

What a consistent trilogy this has turned into, with no signs of it ending here despite lower box-office returns than initially expected. This latest installment moves the story on a great deal, and thankfully it doesn’t feel like it’s going over completely the same ground we’ve seen so far in the preceding parts of the trilogy. Helped greatly by new surroundings and a new subgenre, this is a take on the complex war film, not so much in that it’s battle-filled, more that there are ideological battles being fought along with acts of violence and brutality. The two sides embroiled in something very familiar, channeling aspects of  ‘The Great Escape’ and even overtly referencing ‘Apocalypse Now’.

We can see a huge step towards the subjugated human race we assume things are building towards from the original 1968 film. As with the preceding parts, the focus is on the apes not the humans, though I’d say far more so than before. There are no recurring human characters in this revived series, but there are apes such as Caesar (again brilliantly performed by Andy Serkis), his family, and closest advisors Maurice and Winter, who have developed over the course of the films, with the technological advancements of the effects artists mirroring the developmental and ideological changes in the characters.

It’s fascinating to see how this franchise is getting audiences to ideologically side with the apes more than the majority of humans. It would seem logical to think that it might be easier to get audiences to side with human characters, yet this rebooted series has worked from the start on keeping audiences alongside Caesar in particular, better able to relate to the ape’s perspective. It’ll be interesting to see if this allegiance may be shifted in future installments as the apes take clear dominance at the cost of human slavery.

There are not lots of speaking apes, yet. Caesar speaks at length, as does one other ape, but most are only capable of a word or two. As we’re following the apes for the film there’s not a lot of dialogue between them, much more communication is by means of sign-language which is helpfully subtitled. Most of the dialogue in the film is saved for just a couple of hard-hitting exchanges with human opponents, particularly the general. Woody Harrelson as always is brilliant, though this role really has none of his trademark wit, there’s no place for it. The colonel is a tougher and more villainous character than we often see him playing but equally assertive, showing he can take on a variety of roles and make them compelling.

I have to wonder if the pace and tone are a little too subdued for the first half of the film. Though there are battles and conflicts, some of which are shocking and pivotal, there’s a large section of the film that involves journeying and in which not a lot happens, nor, as said before, is there much in the way of spoken dialogue. It may be a little quiet and slower than the action-filled trailers and promotion may suggest, thus proving difficult or disappointing for some viewers who are expecting solid action. I really liked the film, but in the tired state I was in when I saw it, I found it difficult to stay awake and alert for the more subdued parts. Thankfully the second half picked up considerably, as did I.

Much has been said by others about the box-office performance of the film, taking less than ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ and declining quickly. I think this performance is no fault of the film itself, but a failure on the part of the studio when picking a release window. I saw it as part of an all-day cinema session, with excellent films like ‘Baby Driver’, ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ and ‘Wonder Woman’ all on release at the same time and with ‘Dunkirk’ about to premiere days later. This gave it strong competition from other well-received action-filled films, allowing little room for this to get as many screenings even in multiplexes let alone smaller cinemas, and vying for the limited funds of moviegoers.

This film treads some ground (though in a different way) that was covered with the last film of the original series ‘Battle for the Planet of the Apes’ in 1973, so where they go next will be increasingly original material. A fourth film could have the fascinating challenge of closing the gap in the timeline, leading to what may be an almost inevitable, and likely superior third adaptation of the original ‘Planet of the Apes’ novel.

I’m looking forward to finding a day to watch the three ‘Apes’ films back-to-back so I can fully appreciate how well this saga is being developed narratively, visually and technologically. It’s a bit of a slow burn at times but overall a very rewarding film that showcases how well these apes are rendered and portrayed that the technological achievement takes a backseat to the immersive war narrative. I hope the studio doesn’t lose confidence in this franchise on purely financial reasoning because the next chapter in this story has all the potential to be even more impressive. 

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