Thursday, July 13, 2017

Review: "War for the Planet of the Apes"

Can a summer blockbuster film also be contemplative and downright sensitive? The third entry in the reboot of the “Planet of the Apes” certainly manages to achieve that, in a movie with thrills but one that truly engrosses with a probing study of its central character and the nature of leadership.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” takes us a few more years down the road, about 15 years after the outbreak of a simian flu that killed off most humans while granting all forms of apes higher intelligence. Caesar, the leader of the simians played through motion capture by Andy Serkis, has tried his best to avoid conflict with the remnants of mankind, who seem insistent about wiping out their genetic cousins before expiring themselves.

Grayer and grimmer, Caesar has grown tired of always turning the other cheek, and is ready for some payback.

Three movies in, the CGI effects for Caesar and the other apes continue to astound. The subtlest emotions play out on his face, especially eyes that know rage, despair, bravery and tenderness.

The antagonist is Woody Harrelson as the Colonel, a seemingly close relation to Kurtz from “Apocalypse Now,” who’s gone off the deep end while carrying out his own particular sense of mission. Uncharacteristically bloated and stiff, Harrelson comes across more as more blinkered than crazed.

Caesar and his kind are astonished to find not only apes crucified on stakes, but also other human soldiers. Both are branded with the alpha and omega symbols, and it’s clear the Colonel’s crew is more focused on end times than the beginning.

After their first face-to-face encounter goes badly for the apes, Caesar is determined to have his revenge, even if it means abandoning his clan while they go on an Exodus-like journey for a new homeland. The biblical references are never far from hand, and Caesar’s plight often takes on a Shakespearean quality as the hero must endure continuous tragedies and challenges, including confronting his own rash decisions.

Joining him on his quest are Maurice (Karin Konoval), a wise orangutan, and Rocket (Terry Notary), a former adversary turned loyal and muscular presence. Along the way they pick up a mute human girl (Amiah Miller), whose angelic demeanor reminds Caesar of his own losses. And they meet Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a zoo chimpanzee-turned-kooky-hermit who somehow acquired the power of speech -- and comedic relief -- separate from Caesar’s tribe.

One of the more disturbing aspects of this movie is the “donkeys” -- apes who have willingly turned themselves over as slaves to the humans in exchange for better treatment. Among them is Red (Ty Olsson), a mighty gorilla who treats Caesar cruelly but is impressed with his resolve.

Director Matt Reeves co-wrote the script with Mark Bomback, a holdover from the last movie. “War” has an almost elegiac quality, underscored by the restrained music by Michael Giacchino, which often slims down to just a few affecting trills of piano notes.

Amidst a summer explosion of dumb popcorn movies, it’s reassuring to see that it’s still possible to do big-budget filmmaking with brains and heart.

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