War for the Planet of the Apes (2017, Matt Reeves)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Where, when and what: It’s 15 years since the events of the series reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). So therefore we’re a few years into the ape/human conflict that started in its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) – let’s say it’s now the late 2020s. The events take place in a post-apocalyptic North America. Under threat from the approaching human forces, the apes decide to relocate to a desert. But when a US Army colonel infiltrates the camp and kills the wife and son of the ape leader Caesar, Caesar heads off to seek revenge…

Humans: There are remarkably few human characters in the story. The unnamed US Army colonel is played by Woody Harrelson, who’s clearly taking a lot of inspiration from Marlon Brando’s similar character in 1979’s Apocalypse Now. Also, on their trek to hunt down the colonel, Caesar and co encounter a young, mute girl (Amiah Miller). They look after her and call her Nova; the name is a reference to the 1968 Apes movie.

Apes: As with the previous films, the CGI apes are an absolute marvel. You soon forget that they’re anything other than physical, textured, *alive* characters. After the opening scene, we cut to Caesar (again played via mo-cap technology by Andy Serkis) and from now on, we see events through ape eyes. It’s a brave decision, especially as few apes can talk and even fewer speak in proper sentences. (You get very used to reading subtitles.) Caesar has a command staff, including the soulful Maurice (Karin Konoval), and a family who are soon killed by the colonel. There are also apes who are working for the humans, acting as scouts and spies, who are disparagingly referred to as donkeys (a pun on Donkey Kong?). But the simian who makes the biggest impact in this film is a chimp called Bad Ape (Steve Zahn). Caesar and co find him hiding out in an abandoned zoo. He’s mostly a comic-relief character, but a comic-relief character with plenty of heart and childlike innocence. It’s a tremendously watchable performance.

Review: We start in the point of view of human survivors as a troop of soldier stealthily creep through woodland. One has ‘Monkey killer’ graffitied on his helmet, another ‘Endangered species’. To the sound of Michael Giacchino’s droning score and woodland noises, we follow them handheld as they approach a group of apes. It’s a marvellously atmospheric sequence, which then explodes into an intense battle scene. But after this opening, the movie takes a number of surprising turns. For a start, as mentioned, this is the apes’ story and we’re experiencing events with them. The humans are the aggressive, unreasonable bad guys, which is a switch from the more measured storytelling in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Another surprise is how sedate the film is: after the initial bursts of action and crisis, we’re into lengthy travelogue sequences in some remarkably beautiful landscapes. There are forests, waterfalls, beaches, scrubland; the weather ranges from sun to blizzards. In fact, this ‘war’ movie often feels more like an old-school Western as Caesar and others ride their horses across country on a heartfelt mission. Significantly, the locations all feel real and big and vivid. They suit the story, which is soulful and engaging – and also not afraid to take its time and soak up the atmosphere. This narrative debt need to be paid off in the second half of the movie, but sadly War for the Planet of the Apes starts to drag once the characters reach the colonel’s compound.

Seven eyes (almost human) out of 10

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