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

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014, Matt Reeves)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Where, when and what: Despite its title (shouldn’t dawn come first?), this is a sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). An opening montage tells us what’s happened since that movie’s pandemic – basically, lots of people died, society collapsed and intelligent apes have formed a colony in some redwood forests. It’s been ’10 winters’ since the pandemic, so we’re probably in the 2020s, and the events take place in and around San Francisco. Although not a remake, this story shares some similarities with 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes.

Humans: The plot kicks off after a hotheaded man called Carver (Kirk Acevedo) shoots an ape when they come face to face in a forest. It’s the first human/ape encounter in a decade so maybe we can excuse his nerviness. Carver used to work for the water company so he knows the local dam can be used for power. But he later fucks up a temporary truce with the apes by smuggling a gun into their camp… The lead human character is Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who is recceing the dam when Carver shoots the ape. Peacemaker Malcolm wants to parley with the apes and he soon forms a bond of trust with their leader, Caesar. Malcolm’s girlfriend, Ellie (Keri Russell), used to work for the CDC so knows that the surviving humans are immune to the disease that wiped everyone else out. His son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), like to draw and it’s not entirely clear why Malcolm keeps taking him on dangerous missions. Back at the colony, the group’s leader is Dreyfus (a soulful Gary Oldman). He’s a man under pressure and has a reactionary instinct, yet thanks to some smart writing and acting he’s still a sympathetic character. He advocates killing the apes, but you kinda see his point of view. (Will Rodman from the previous film also appears in a briefly seen video clip.)

Apes: The film’s opening shot (once we’re past the montage, that is) is a mission statement. An extreme close-up of Caesar’s determined eyes slowly pulls out to reveal his full length… As in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, motion-caption technique has been used to imbue the CGI apes with believable emotions and movements. They’re astonishingly photorealistic, and you quickly forget that the apes are a) computer-generated, and b) not human – you just accept them as characters. Caesar (again played by Andy Serkis) is their leader and rules with power and compassion. He can speak fractured English and walks more upright than his followers. He forges a shaky pact with Malcolm, but is betrayed and shot by his friend Koba (Toby Kebbell) who advocates killing all the humans. An injured Caesar then hides in the house he grew up in (ie, the one from the previous film). Koba, meanwhile, is leading an attack on the human colony, having framed them for the shooting of Caesar. Other featured ape characters include Ash (Doc Shaw), who’s shot by Carver; wise old orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval); and Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), Caesar’s eldest son. The last shot of the movie, incidentally, is a bookend to the first: we again see Caesar’s eyes, but they’re now sorrowful and foreboding. A war with mankind is on the way and will hit in a sequel due out in 2017.

Review: This is a monster movie where the monsters are sympathetic characters, which is a really great trick to pull off. And it’s very well directed by Matt Reeves, who also made the stomach-churner Cloverfield (2008). There’s a heavy sense of foreboding hanging over the whole story, for example. Characters, situations and incidents feel well thought-out and textured, while the pace is not all go so the storytelling has to chance to breathe in between the action. In fact, while a simple plot, every scene is dusted with nice moments of humanity or poignancy. You feel for these characters. It helps that the film is shot with more solidity – long takes, tracking shots, naturalistic lighting – than Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which was all about fluid camera moves and a softly lit sheen. This is generally a more dangerous and therefore more interesting world, and is full of post-apocalyptic production design that tells story very well. But it’s the characters where the film most succeeds. We’re shown two sides of the divide – human and ape – and there’s plenty of mirroring going on. Both have a determined and reasonable leader, a misguided member who thinks war is the answer, and innocents caught in the crossfire. The script switches and balances the two POVs very well. Add in some very good incidental music by Michael Giacchino and a few entertaining action scenes – even if a 36-second shot from the top of a tank is a bit show-off-y – and you have an entertaining couple of hours.

Eight petrol stations out of 10