Thursday 13 July 2017

War For The Planet Of The Apes

Gorilla Warfare

War For The Planet Of The Apes
2017 USA Directed by Matt Reeves 
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Minor spoilers.

Yeah, okay then.

The latest trilogy extension of the famous Apes franchise reaches what looks like it should be its last part with this latest entry, War For The Planet Of The Apes. That being said, I am already hearing that plans for another sequel are already in the works and I can’t imagine this one won’t do the numbers because... well, it’s pretty good actually. Formulaic, perhaps but... hugely entertaining. So this makes it the ninth official film in the franchise for 20th Century Fox so far... I’m not counting things like TV episodes rereleased as movies or the dodgy Japanese Time Of The Apes in terms of official movie sequels but, you’re more than welcome to do so if you so desire. I still need to sit down and watch that Japanese one at some point.

Although the last film in the series, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, left things on something of a cliffhanger, this new part of the sequence does not carry on directly from the ensuing carnage implied by the ending of the last film but, instead, carries it on from some time after that impending battle has been fought and with the surviving apes living in the forest. However, this film opens extremely strongly with a kind of ‘apes meet Vietnam’ kind of feel as a splinter human military group go in with their donkey apes... who are basically apes who have betrayed their kind and who once fought with Koba, the ape who was killed by our simian hero Caesar (played once again by Andy Sirkis)... and attack the apes with some heavy firepower before being slaughtered themselves. This is right before Caesar lets a few of the humans go to send a message to their evil Colonel, played here by Woody Harrelson like a young and more energetic version of Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz from Francis Ford Coppolla’s Apocalypse Now. Indeed, the words Ape-Ocalypse Now can be seen as graffiti on a wall in certain scenes.

However, rather than leave the apes alone, things escalate and Harrelson kills Caesar’s wife and son, leaving him with only his newest son Cornelius, in one of many nice references to the original cycle of five Planet Of The Apes movies from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although, in those films, it was Cornelius who was the father of Caesar and here it’s the other way around. When Caesar decides to hunt down the military unit of humans and take vengeance for his loss, he unwillingly takes a few apes with him and the rest of his people flee to a new location... or so he thinks. Soon though, as well as the mission, he also has a new human companion tagging along.... a very young girl played by Amiah Miller who, in another nice reference to the original movies, can’t speak and who is given the name Nova. I won’t give away the reason why the young girl can’t speak because it’s actually integral to where the story is leading up to but I will say that it’s a hangover from something that happened in the first film in this cycle, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.

By the time Caesar gets to the compound where The Colonel and his men are located (with another nasty surprise for the apes), he also has another companion in the form of a ‘comic relief’ ape called Bad Ape (Steve Zahn)... who is kind of unnecessary to the plot but he’s quite a fun character and he doesn’t detract from the tone of the movie too much... actually being a comical character that performs his intended function in the story. That is to say, he lightens the tone without causing the film to descend into comedy. So, some nice writing coupled with fine performances in this movie throughout, actually.

The film is quite staggeringly fast paced and engages the imagination without letting go. The strong opening is pretty intense, as is the rest of the film... not to mention quite moving in places... and at some point you might, if you have time, stop to remember that most of the characters for maybe 85% of the time in this movie are CGI (motion captured for sure, by the performers, but still CGI). The fact that these characters are basically talking animals, which you soon forget,  speaks volumes not just about how good the special effects here are but also about how well realised the apes in this movie are. You will feel for them and that’s another twist which has slowly been building over the course of the movies, just like it did in the original movies almost 50 years ago... the humans have, for the most part, become the villains of the piece and we are asked to sympathise with the apes for most of the time. The fact that we have no trouble doing this shows what levels of skill are on display when these movies are made and it’s, perhaps, an interesting thing to note that this particular trilogy has had no single human regular character in more than one film... the only regular recurring characters are the most recognisable apes. The writers and director take a not unusual but fairly interesting route from point A to point B and it all holds together really well in that it doesn’t feel like a rehash of other episodes in the ongoing saga. It continues to hold interest over a running time which, in this case, is well over two hours.

The movie also has a lot of overt references to the original franchise films... perhaps more so than the previous two. I’ve talked about Cornelius and Nova in this context but there’s also stuff like the mutant symbol from Beneath The Planet Of The Apes being used by the splinter group of soldiers here and a nice switch around on the ‘scarecrows’ of the original Planet Of The Apes. It also, despite its mostly serious tone throughout, has a lot of the kind of humour which permeated the original movies, to a certain extent. Even the opening shots of the backs of military helmets with references to things like the 1951 Ronald Reagan movie Bedtime For Bonzo are loaded with witty quotes and observations and it’s nice to have this stuff in a movie which could so easily have become too poe-faced if it were done with a less defter touch.

Also along for the ride on this one is composer Michael Giacchino, who joins the ranks of both Jerry Goldsmith and Leonard Rosenman to become only the third composer in the series to have scored two Apes movies. The score here is, to my mind, a lot more punchy and interesting than his score for the previous movie and I am really looking forward to the CD release of this in a few weeks. He even does a lovely, almost primitively percussive arrangement of Lionel Newman’s 20th Century Fox logo fanfare (including the 1953 Cinemascope extension to the musical jingle) at the start of the movie... which I'm really hoping makes it onto the album and which goes down a treat right at the start of the movie. His recent opening logo musical arrangement of another well known tune for the start of Spider-Man - Homecoming (reviewed here), was a similarly nice treat. 

All of this... story, script, special effects, performance, music and a great deal of other things come together so well in War For The Planet Of The Apes that it’s almost, in some ways, a perfect movie. Anybody who liked the last two in the series should really have a good time with this and I would recommend seeing it on a big screen if you can get the chance. I’d like to see this sequence stop here now because it does have a fairly natural ending to the story started two films ago but there’s certainly space for it to go somewhere else if the studio really decides that the money is talking too loudly above the spirit of the art. I guess we’ll just have to trust that the accountants see, hear and speak no evil, then, when it comes to expanding on the franchise any further.

Planet Of The Apes @ NUTS4R2
Click on title for review, where available.

Planet Of The Apes TV Show (live action) - to be reviewed
Time Of The Apes - to be reviewed

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