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 Serious Monkey Business

Woody Harrelson
Woody Harrelson
20th Century Fox
 140 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson 
War for the Planet of the Apes

It is sometimes difficult for film critics to separate their admiration for a truly groundbreaking film from a technical perspective and their critical opinion for the artistic merits of that same film. The Jazz Singer was probably the single most important film in the history of the cinema in terms of shaping motion pictures as we know them today, but few people would consider it a great, or even a very good movie. The new Planet of the Apes franchise, which employs state-of-the-art motion capture technology to bring apes portrayed by Andy Serkis, Steve Zahn, and others to life, is undoubtedly breathtaking, especially its latest installment, War for the Planet of the Apes. However, take away the technical wizardry (and some excellent acting by Serkis and Zahn), and what is left is a decent action movie with occasional delusions of grandeur.


War for the Planet of the Apes is the conclusion of a trilogy that began with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and continued with 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. All three films are based on the mythos first set forth in the 1968 Charlton Heston original. And, just as zombie movies of today assume a familiarity on the part of viewers with the “rules” set forth in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the three movies in the current Apes series assume that viewers are familiar with what came as a shocking ending to the Heston movie, namely, that sometime in the not-too-distant future, human society is virtually destroyed and replaced by one consisting of highly intelligent, talking apes.


In the current trilogy, the ascendancy of the apes is due to some biological experimentation gone horribly awry that resulted, first, in a marked increase in ape intelligence, culminating in the gaining of the power of speech by Caesar (Andy Serkis), a former lab animal, and, second, in a deadly plague known as the Simian Flu that wiped out a good bit of mankind. As War begins, the apes are engaged in what is still an underdog combat against the remnants of the U.S. military. Under Caesar’s leadership, they try to hide deep in the forest, wanting only to be left alone. However, when troops under the command of a particularly nutty and vengeful colonel (Woody Harrelson, whose character is unnamed in the movie) kill Caesar’s wife and child, the ape leader vows revenge on the colonel and his troops.


With a few of his closest allies, Caesar makes his way to the colonel’s headquarters, a heavily fortified former weapons storage facility cut out of the side of a mountain. Along the way, they pick up two disparate additions to their party, a young human girl whom Caesar dubs Nova (Amiah Miller), who has lost the ability to speak, and a former zoo chimpanzee who calls himself Bad Ape (Zahn), who has gained that ability.


Eventually, the colonel captures Caesar and reveals that the Simian Flu has mutated and is causing humans to regress. He intends to kill any human displaying signs of the disease in order to preserve the superiority of the human race. He has also enslaved hundreds of apes at his facility, where his scientific staff experiments on the captives to find a cure for the Simian Flu (with generally fatal results for the subjects). The colonel later reveals that other soldiers are coming in force to destroy his facility, and he intends to make a last stand to, in his view, save humanity.


In addition to paying homage to the original Apes franchise, War for the Planet of the Apes also borrows shamelessly from numerous other sources, most notably Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and, more specifically, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War take on the subject, Apocalypse Now. The similarity between Harrelson’s mad colonel and Marlon Brando’s mad Colonel Kurtz is unmistakable (although Brando has a good 100 pounds or so on Harrelson). Beyond that, the human treatment of the various prisoners manages to combine elements of just about every genocidal oppression in recent history, from antebellum slavery to the Holocaust. None of the comparisons nor, indeed, none of the political points made in the film are particularly subtle. War’s screenplay is by the film’s director Matt Reeves and Mark Bombeck, a writer better known for his action films than any subtle dramatics.


As an action film (which the second half of War pretty much is), the movie is fairly decent, with the obligatory CGI-overkill final battle between thousands of digitized soldiers supporting the warring human factions. But what is truly striking in the film is the motion capture work that transforms Serkis, Zahn, and various co-stars into nearly perfectly realized apes, albeit with the facial expressions of the actors. The ultimate triumph of motion capture in this regard may well be the sequences of the apes riding on horseback on actual horses, not completely fabricated CGI concepts.


But the technology is worth little without talented actors driving the apes’ performances, and War has the benefit of the Laurence Olivier of motion capture. In roles in which audiences see his face, Andy Serkis has never had an impressive role, but he has been at the heart of motion capture acting since he gave the first truly striking such performance as Gollum in Lord of the Rings. And, as the technology has improved, so too has Serkis’ range and depth. His Caesar is a fully realized character, one that, in War’s greatest irony, questions his “humanity” and whether his desire for revenge against the colonel is overcoming his sense of morality.


Is Serkis’ performance Oscar-worthy, or is this a case of an adequate performance appearing better because the audience is so impressed with the technology behind it. I think the answer here is a little bit of both. Serkis exhibits considerable range as Caesar, but the performance is enhanced in the audience’s eye because at some level they feel that they actually are watching an ape emote.


Ape or human, the storyline of War of the Planet of the Apes is adequate, nothing more. The film recycles themes from dozens of previous movies, most notably Rod Serling’s screenplay from the original Heston film. It’s still a solid entertainment, although action film fans will likely see several better efforts this summer. Still, the sight of Serkis, Zahn, and the others nearly flawless rendered as simians is still a marvel to behold. War for the Planet of the Apes uses some dazzling technology to supply a decent ending to a saga that by now has said all that can possibly be said on a subject Heston’s film covered fairly well some 50 years earlier.

In this scene, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) reluctantly takes part in freeing ape prisoners from human soldiers.

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War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) on IMDb