‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ prefers less combat, more drama

“War for the Planet of the Apes” – Lions may be the kings of the jungle, but apes are the animal rulers of dystopian civilization cinema.   Hands – with opposable thumbs – down.  Six films and two television series donned the big and small screens, respectively, before director Rupert Wyatt resurrected the franchise in 2011 with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”.   Wyatt did not monkey around (sorry, I couldn’t resist), as he opened a prequel-door to reveal key moments that led to the apes’ rise.  The pronounced bond between chimpanzee and human, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Will (James Franco), effectively pulled the audience into the narrative, and the Frankenstein’s Monster-concoctions evoked devilishly-sick feelings during the picture’s second and third acts.  “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” followed in 2014, and now, “War” completes the reboot trilogy.

With a title like “War for the Planet of the Apes”, one might anticipate a couple hours of combat within the 2-hour 20-minute runtime, but writer/director Matt Reeves and writer Mark Bomback burn many more calories on exposition and Caesar’s psychology rather than gunplay and fisticuffs.  In fact, with all the havoc that Koba (Toby Kebbell) caused in 2014’s “Dawn”, that particular movie should have been named “War”, and this 2017 picture deserves to be called “Prison Escape of the Planet of the Apes”, because for a long stretch of film, apes are trapped in captivity, stuck in a mundane, hellish existence.

Fortunately, Reeves and Bomback construct an affecting journey for Caesar, and his specific story arc captures a fulfilling science fiction experience – especially for fans – that feels like an authentically human one.

Humans, of course, are at war with apes, as evidenced by soldiers wearing helmets with messages like, “Monkey Killer” and “Bedtime for Bonzo” scribed on them.   With homo sapiens almost wiped off the planet, and simians currently thinking like people, a simple, continued existence for human beings has become infinitely more complicated.  Cooler heads are not prevailing, as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) – with a psychotic, solitary style reminiscent of Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) from “Apocalypse Now” (1979) – has declared war on his targeted enemy.

Although the fighting has endured for a while, as far as the big screen is concerned, The Colonel’s band of soldiers strike first blood, and it becomes personal for Caesar, one who would rather live a separate, peaceful existence with humankind.  Now, however, revenge consumes him, and the search for the man – who held an eerie, green laser on his rifle – is in his sights.

From my eyesight, the motion-captured visuals of Caesar, an orangutan named Maurice (Karin Konoval), a chimp named Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), and hundreds of others can take one’s breath away, because the technology appears flawless.  I am not 100 percent certain if the special effects have improved since the 2011 picture, but they feel more advanced, as – to the “untrained” (and I count myself in this group) naked eye – the apes truly seem real.  It is a bit chilling.

The picture’s environment carries a chill in the air too, as the apes live in the Northern California wilderness and travel north to snowy country to seek out The Colonel’s lair.  Although the story arc – at its core – is a traditional road/revenge picture, Caesar’s relationships with other key characters carry an emotional depth that peak our interest.  New faces like Bad Ape – with some effective comedic touches – and a blonde-haired, human girl (Amiah Miller) – who wonderfully pays homage to the past – are two prime examples.

Yes, two large scale confrontations help loosely define the film’s title, but the picture does not bathe in violent acts nor include involved-war planning with several large swathes of fighting.  Instead, Reeves’ film works best while occupying within its designed, conversational spaces, steering the future soul of the apes’ existence.  Caesar’s internal churn between revenge or release carries the fate of his “people”, and this becomes the primary conflict, even if humans are the obvious cause of another, more dangerous one.

The ape/human clashes fit into the series’ universe, but these ongoing physical battles become secondary to the picture’s philosophical dance.  This, of course, makes “War for the Planet of the Apes” a worthy experience and extends the series’ rule.

⭐⭐⭐  out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image credits: 20th Century Fox; Trailer credits: 20th Century Fox (YouTube)

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