WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

2017; directed by Matt Reeves; adapted by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves; 140 mins

[MAJOR spoilers!]

Whoever would’ve thought you could say the phrase; “a beautiful performance from Steve Zahn“? The man who used to be the most annoying element of any movie in the late 90s/early naughties, here, gives one of the performances of the year so far! As a mad old, Ben Gunn-esque chimp called Bad Ape (which, it seems, is what his Zookeepers used to call him all the time), he is essentially the comic relief role, which he carries off enormously well, never tipping it too far or upsetting any scenes. What he also does, however, is countenance the comedy with just the right sprinkling of tragedy and frailty. So, Steve Zahn’s good – what else is good about this third installment? Well…

After the events of Dawn, a war of attrition has been raging between the apes, led by Caesar and the humans who are now accompanied by ape defectors; one-time followers of Koba who have split from Caesar following the attempted coup. The ape colony is a formidable force but they are still looking for somewhere sustainable to begin their new civilisation. Caesar is trying to broker a detente with the humans by sparing their prisoners and sending them back in one piece but a rogue officer, simply called The Colonel, is hell-bent on destroying the apes and in a nighttime ambush, he starts with Caesar’s family.

Caesar’s bond with the humans is almost irreparably destroyed by this and he vows revenge against The Colonel, sending the colony one way whilst he tracks down his enemies. On the way, he is joined by Maurice, Rocket and Luca, a gorilla bodyguard. What they discover at The Colonel’s base enrages Caesar further but Maurice is concerned that, in his quest for vengeance, he is becoming more and more like Koba by the day…

I don’t know if I do like this one quite as much as Dawn BUT! in the pantheon of sci-fi, action epics, that is like saying it’s not quite Goya. I will need to watch it again because I think it suffered from the fact that my expectations were too high and that skewed my judgement. With Dawn, because I went into it not expecting anything much and was so surprised by how great it was whereas this has been one of my most anticipated films of the year. Rather like with Rogue One, I so wanted it to be perfect that the imperfections stuck out that bit more. It’s not you it’s me!

Now, let’s carry on with performances and obviously we have to mention Andy Serkis’ work as Caesar. He really has carried this trilogy sky high with sterling work, aided in no small part by the mo-cap SFX, which for me, are the nearest CGI has ever gotten to photo-real! Because we know it’s a special effect, I think our brains will never fully accept it as real. What we’re not doing is staring in awe, looking at some CGI. We’re invested in what’s going on because of Serkis’ precipitously conflicted performance and the SFX team’s willingness to step back and work alongside the actors to achieve the seamlessness which we see up on screen.

Harrelson is typically great as The Colonel, this is the kind of role he does in his sleep and that’s not a criticism by the way! It’s exactly why you get Woody Harrelson to do the role if you can because he’s the best at taking that macho persona to extremes. Apparently Oliver Stone, when he cast him in Natural Born Killers, said; “I sense violence in you!” On the face of it, a fairly pretentious statement until you consider that Harrelson’s dad was a hitman and you watch him in this film and NBK and things like True Detective, he can can conjure up a wellspring of alpha male hurt and darkness that suits this franchise like a glove! Also, is it me or was there a touch of Brando in his voice for this rather Kurtz-y role?

Final star mention should go to Karin Konoval as Maurice, who is my absolute favourite character in this series. If I engaged with this movie anywhere, it was with him! Maurice, the wise orangutan, who is the conscience of the apes. Ever cautious of allowing the apes to cut themselves off from the humans, emotionally but clear in his fealty to his own kind. Konoval has done a hugely underrated job as this character and if the franchise carries on, I wanna see more of her and Maurice.

One thing that stood out with Michael Seresin‘s beautiful cinematography is that the action scenes feature almost no handheld camerawork. It’s all steadicam, cranes and tracking, often in as few takes as possible and greatly appreciated for that. James Chinlund’s production design is gritty and well thought through, particularly, the use of graffiti on helmets, buildings and backs. Using “Donkey” as a humiliating byword for servile apes is a really smart bit of believable pop culture usage. Michael Giacchino‘s starts fantastically well, evoking the great orchestral scores of the 50s and 60s, with what sounded like a lot of Japanese influence from composers like Toru Takmitsu but unfortunately goes down the LPS* route like so much of the crap he does for Marvel.

There are flaws, for one, a big prison escape scene lost it’s sense of jeopardy for me because we never saw the guards, even just a couple of cutaways would’ve helped up the ante. Otherwise, it just looks like they’re the most inattentive soldiers in movies. Also, Luca’s death scene strangely undermines a previous scene. Why the big moment with him and the girl? Their relationship hasn’t been built up enough yet.

These gripes may well be smoothed over with a second viewing which I will give it. I feel like I didn’t bring my A-game to proceedings so I will see it again. It’s not the best but still – as I said – even Steve Zahn’s great in it!

*Lilting Piano Solo

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