WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Matt Reeves,

Stars: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Michael Adamthwaite, Amiah Miller, Ty Olsson, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer, Sara Canning, Aleks Paunovic, Devyn Dalton.

Ape-pocalypse Now?

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War For The Planet Of The Apes is the third and supposedly concluding chapter in the rebooted Planet Of The Apes franchise, especially if you don’t include Tim Burton’s awful and misguided 2001 attempt to remake the 1968 sci-fi classic that starred Charlton Heston as an astronaut stranded on a distant planet controlled by a race of intelligent apes. The new series began with Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes in 2011, when we first met Caesar, the ape made intelligent through drug experiments. That was followed by Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes in 2014, in which the renegade ape Koba had shattered the uneasy peace between humans and apes. The series has existed in its own self-contained world. War For The Planet Of The Apes takes up the story two years later and is set in a rather bleak, desolate world.

Caesar (again played by Andy Serkis with the aid of motion capture technology) leads his tribe in a settlement deep inside California’s Muir Woods. Caesar is still haunted by his actions in killing Koba, which broke one of the tenets of his world – apes don’t kill apes. It is a relatively peaceful existence until they are forced to fight off an incursion from a heavily armed military unit under the command of the imperious and roguish Colonel (played by Woody Harrelson, clearly channelling Brando’s deranged Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now here). Apparently, the simian flu that decimated much of the human population has also had a sinister side effect in rendering humans mute, and the Colonel believes that only an apocalypse can save humanity. Indeed, he even sacrificed his own family to protect them from the virus.

But when the Colonel is directly responsible for killing Caesar’s wife and eldest son, the personal tragedy sets Caesar on a mission of vengeance. He is accompanied by the older and wiser Maurice (again played by Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary) and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). Along the way they also find “Bad Ape” (voiced by Steve Zahn), a refugee from a circus, and the mute orphan girl Nova (played by newcomer Amiah Miler). Caesar either has to try and negotiate a peace deal to end the war or his species face extinction.

They eventually find the colonel in his compound near the border of the Sierra Nevada. He is building a reinforced fortress using imprisoned apes as slave labour. Caesar is captured, and tries to inspire the apes to rise up against their oppressor, thus setting the scene for the final conflict.

Returning to the director’s chair is Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, etc), who directed Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. Here he pushes the material in a slightly different direction, although there are numerous sly digs, in-jokes and references to the original series of films. The character of Maurice is named after Maurice Evans, the veteran character actor who played Dr Zaius in the 1968 original.

The film deals with big themes of survival, revenge, redemption, oppression, sacrifice, retribution, family, racism and fascism. And there is even a trenchant criticism of America’s military might and its imperialist ideals to bring its version of peace and democracy to the world. Reeves has also studied a number of classic war films – from The Bridge On The River Kwai, The Great Escape to Apocalypse Now and even Spartacus – for inspiration. He handles the action sequences with verve. And the film looks great too thanks to the superb Canadian locations and the widescreen cinematography of Michael Seresin, who also shot the previous film in this series. And the CGI-created apes look very realistic, showing how far even the special effects have advanced since 2011.

But for all its action sequences, this is still very much a character driven film. The film owes much of its success though to the complex and subtly nuanced performance of Serkis, who, through the use of state of the art special effects and the latest in motion capture technology, brings great depth and emotion to his portrayal of the heroic Caesar. The way he uses his body and facial expressions to convey Caesar’s thoughts and emotions is impressive, as is the way he finds the essential humanity of the character. There is a lot of buzz surrounding his performance and an Oscar nomination for his work here would not be out of the question. Harrelson is gruff as the anonymous Colonel, but he gives him some nuance and shades that make him more than just a power-hungry sadist. Zahn injects plenty of self-deprecating humour into proceedings with his performance as the annoying Bad Ape, who struggles to cope with his tragic past.

War For The Planet Of The Apes brings the series to a fitting and satisfying conclusion, although given its performance at the box office it is possible that we have not seen the last of this franchise.
★★★☆

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