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War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

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Score: 7/10

Genre: Sci-Fi Adventure and Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 22 min.

Release Date: July 14th, 2017 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Matt Reeves Actors: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller, Ty Olsson, Terry Notary, Toby Kebbell

P

roficiency in computer imagery has reached such an astounding degree of realism that the digitally synthesized simians in “War for the Planet of the Apes” truly come alive onscreen. Combined with the highest caliber voice actors and performance capture, the monkeys blend flawlessly into their surroundings, moving amongst their real-life counterparts with stunning accuracy. But perhaps more impressive than the level of visual mastery is the ability of the film’s creators to imbue their primate protagonists with a vast range of human qualities and complexities. Oftentimes, the apes act more human than the humans. Each side receives a gamut of emotions, but it’s the hirsute heroes that cull sympathy with their motivations of love, family, survival, and revenge. The film does carry on a touch too long, ventures into the realm of overdramatic in the third act, and borrows liberally from war films of the past, but the potent mix of action and pathos captures a sense of impassioned adventure – admirable in any summer blockbuster.

After the onslaught of the Simian Flu, and vengeful ape Koba’s (Toby Kebbell) war against humanity, mankind stands at a precarious edge of calamity. Caesar (Andy Serkis), the compassionate leader of a large group of apes forced into the woods for refuge, desires peace. But when Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), the head of renegade military faction Alpha Omega, engages in a heinous strike against the retreating monkeys, Caesar finds himself stricken with hate and anger – the very emotions he swore to overcome in his conflict with Koba. Heading out to find McCullough’s stronghold with only a few apes at his side, Caesar begins a cataclysmic battle against a maniacal madman that will determine the fates of both man and ape.

Opening with pans across Army helmets adorned with the phrases “Monkey Killer,” “Bedtime for Bonzo,” and “Endangered Species,” this latest chapter almost seems comical at first. But the dark allusions to Vietnam win out, with hidden fortresses and shootouts across heavily forested arenas overcoming the strangeness of apes on horseback or the first few times Caesar speaks in full sentences. Plus, the initial reveal of frightened simians obeying human masters – to avoid ending up on the losing side – is shocking and profound.

Soon enough, an entanglement of human emotions can be witnessed in the interactions of the apes, who are clearly the protagonists. In this newest entry in the long-running franchise, the humans are thoroughly, irredeemably villainous, revealing that shades of morality, sympathy, and mercy reside only with the apes. This is embellished by the inclusion of Nova (Amiah Miller), a young girl, who generates some of the best moments of the film, using the wordless, oft quiet negotiations of mere flitting eyes to navigate in her new surroundings. And to reiterate the distance of human heroes, her role isn’t even introduced until more than 30 minutes in.

And those environments to explore are staggering, with the world of “War for the Planet of the Apes” growing more grandiose and scary and unpredictable with each film. The locations are visually splendid, supplemented by smart and infrequent use of slow-motion, as well as action choreography that never bores. Plus, the music works with the editing and cinematography uncommonly well. Topping this all off is the computer animation, which is once again first-rate, as if Twentieth Century Fox’s hardware is a step above all the other companies’ blockbusters pummeling the screen this summer.

As for the story, the first third is incredibly strong, but the film eventually succumbs to its own unnecessary length, what with all the repetitive images and the abundance of overblown drama. Like a zombie film (or “The Walking Dead” series), threats come from every side, with disloyal, enemy apes posing predicaments just as heinous as the Colonel Kurtz-like villain running a prison camp. As the torture and misery are repeated for large chunks of screentime, every trope of war movies, American slavery movies, and Roman slavery movies seems to surface, preventing the novelty of intelligent apes battling fatigued humans from remaining most pertinent. Instead, it becomes like “The Great Escape” fused with “Apocalypse Now,” with the monkey oppressed behaving more and more like human prisoners-of-war, until it becomes challenging to remember just how striking it was to behold mere zoo captives rising up to conquer their trainers.

– The Massie Twins

 



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