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Review: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)


Title: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

Genre: Science Fiction/Drama

Director: Matt Reeves

Stars: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, and Steve Zahn

Grade: A-

In a Nutshell: In this final installment of the Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy, it’s been two years since the attack on the surviving humans in San Francisco, incited by the human-hating ape Kubo. Leader of the apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis), and his tribe are being tracked down by a rogue US military faction called Alpha Omega, which is headed by an unforgiving Colonel (Woody Harrelson). After a brutal attack on the apes’ home killing Caesar’s wife and eldest son, Caesar is out for personal revenge. As the rest of the apes flee for safety, Caesar and his most trusted friends and advisers set out to locate the Colonel and end his vicious reign.

The Critique: Let’s get something out of the way — The Planet of the Apes movies are tough to keep track of, at least allegorically. One film they’re drawing parallels to animal cruelty, the next (and as the apes become more advanced), racial allegories come into the picture. It’s all kind of a mess (and potentially problematic, given the torrid history of black people being likened to apes by white people to further their subjugation), and it will honestly hurt your brain to think about. From an animal rights perspective, everything checks out just fine, but from a human rights perspective — yikes! When animals represent a subjugated group of humans, you get into some dangerous territory that could potentially perpetuate stereotypes rather than put them to bed. It’s like that Zootopia movie — cute and progressive on the surface, but bafflingly misguided once one actually considers the parallels being made and why they are being made.

….Anyways! Just because some allegories (let’s be real, most of them) tend to fall apart at the seams once we analyze them for more than a half second, does not mean this is a bad movie. In fact, it’s a very good movie! War for the Planet of the Apes is a sprawling epic that calls back to visually striking war films like Apocalypse Now and classic westerns. Throughout this prequel trilogy, Caesar has served as a fascinating, morally conflicted character, and this installment serves as no exception. He’s really driven by grief and anger in this movie, often letting his worst instincts get the best of him. If Caesar evokes a sense of purpose and passion, his most trusted adviser, the orangutan, Maurice, evokes patience and kindness. As they set off on their journey to find the Colonel, Maurice befriends a young, ghostly looking mute girl named Nova in an abandoned village. Sticking with the crew throughout, their befriending of Nova serves as a reminder that this is not a turf war for the apes — they just want to be left alone. Along the way they also run into an intelligent ape, formerly a zoo occupant who has been living in seclusion for several years since the Simian Flu laid waste to most of the human population. Together, this rag-tag group is easy to root for, even if their journey is mostly shrouded in darkness rather than blockbuster hi-jinks.

These prequels have always been a few notches above your average blockbuster in terms of quality, though. In regard to the trilogy’s last two installments, this reputation is mostly due to director Matt Reeves. From the sweeping, epic scope of his wide-shots, to the more intimate character moments in close-up, Reeves knows how to create a cinematic moment, and not just for the sake of being artful or show-y. A particularly striking scene shows green beams of light creeping in and out of the frame as Alpha Omega infiltrates the shadowy caverns of the apes. Credit is also due to the tremendous motion-capture performances of the cast and the visual effects team. These apes feel real as they emote, sign, and speak on screen. Not that it’s a competition, but the most realistic-looking ape is definitely Maurice — nothing looks computer generated about him, which serves as a technical marvel in its own right.

The driving tension between the Colonel and Caesar is also a big draw. Although the Colonel is the type of unrelenting, ruthless villain we’ve seen in many a blockbuster, the movie takes some interesting turns with his character that make the dynamic feel pretty novel. On top of this — and this is the section of the film where some of its messages get confused — the apes planning their escape from the Colonel’s labor camps is also an example of some meticulous and intricate filmmaking well worth the watch. By film’s end, you may be a bit confused (or overwhelmed) about the various larger messages being spouted, but you’ll ultimately feel satisfied with the closing narrative in this trilogy, one that has served as a reminder that even though our options for bigger films are limited to prequels, sequels, and franchises, Hollywood can still churn out the occasional quality blockbuster film.

To Go, to Rent, or to Netflix:

War for the Planet of the Apes is streaming now on HBO Go and HBO Now, and is available for rent/purchase on Vudu.

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