Friday, July 14, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes


At one point as a kid I wondered what it would be like in movies or after-school cartoons if the bad guys won for a change. After all, no matter how things appeared to be going in these shows and films, everything predictably worked out in the end. I suspect that this fleeting thought from my childhood was common among those of the same age who were becoming bored with the formula. Now that my generation has a lot of sway in what gets made, it seems that we’re getting the chance to discover what it feels like when the course reverses and good doesn’t triumph or its victories in mass entertainment are pyrrhic. Think of all the remakes and franchise reboots in the last decade or so whose differentiating quality is that they are now dark, gritty, or edgy. The new normal is an overwhelming sense of gloom and doom, in part because it is considered more artistically serious. While any framework will yield worthwhile and lousy results, this worldview in event films has become exhausting.

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES picks up two years into the combat between humans and the apes. Having toppled Koba in the previous film, Caesar (Andy Serkis) leads his kind, making him the top priority for The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) to find and eliminate. Caesar wishes for the fighting to stop, so when the apes capture some of the enemy, he sends them back as a gesture meant to broker a detente. Instead the intel of where Caesar is invites a slaughter of many he’s been trying to protect.

Caesar sends most of the survivors toward a new home while he intends to exact revenge on the Colonel. Rocket (Terry Notary), Winter (Aleks Paunovic), and Spear (Alessandro Juliani) refuse to let him go alone. On their search they take pity on and add to their group a mute girl given the name Nova (Amiah Miller). They also come across former zoo animal Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), who knows where the Colonel and his men are stationed and agrees to show them.

Beginning with 2011’s RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, the rebooted series has always had dark clouds looming over it because the original films provide the roadmap for where the new ones will arrive. They’ve become progressively darker and now reach the exceedingly grim WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. What gets depicted is restrained enough to stay within the confines of a box office-maximizing PG-13 rating, but what happens is pretty horrific regardless of which side comes out on top. Tragedy builds upon tragedy to the point that by the time this aggressively feel-bad film concludes I left the theater hoping the sun hadn’t been extinguished in the interim. WONDER WOMAN features its share of darkness, but at the core it prizes earnestness, decency, and love over fear, nihilism and hatred. It’s unfair to WAR OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, but I’m seeking more of what WONDER WOMAN is promoting at this point in time.

Perhaps I was just in the wrong mood when I saw WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. It’s a marvelous technical achievement that the number and variety of simians are so convincing that it’s taken for granted that they are real. Although Zahn’s Bad Ape probably belongs in a more lighthearted film, the provides comic relief and a much-needed glimmer of fun. Director and co-writer Matt Reeves lingers on the breathtaking scope of the landscapes being traversed and occupied. The action scenes are brutally effective. The film’s allegory about humanity’s penchant for mutually assured destruction hits hard in the context of the daily news. But WAR OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is such an oppressive film to watch. Plus, there’s the sneaking suspicion that its purpose is just to advance the series to where we knew it was eventually headed.

Grade: C+

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