Monday, July 31, 2017

Review: Ape Prequel Trilogy...strong! A review of "War of the Planet of the Apes!"

War of the Planet of the Apes Review

If you told me fifteen years ago that one of the trilogies of films I'd care about the most in my mid to late twenties would be a prequel trilogy about "Planet of the Apes," I probably would have laughed in your face. That horrid Tim Burton remake in 2001 left a bad taste in my mouth. The older series ranges from great to good to strange. When I think of my overall favorite series' of films, "Planet of the Apes" isn't one I revisit very often. I didn't think a prequel to this series would add up to anything. Prequels in general are a wet blanket, not much tension, emotion and depth can be made when the audience already knows how everything ends, and the studio system will just make safe product just to wring in every last penny a franchise is worth. 

But these overly-long titled "Planet of the Apes" trilogy of film prequels are not your average film. Each and every one of these films packs an emotional, harrowing punch. They create characters we care about then throw them in impossible situations. The special effects to make believable apes has never been better and all of this effort is made in service of a story full of tension and depth and lots of emotion.

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" was 2011, and that revolved around finding your family, finding your place in the world and what to do when those two needs don't cross paths. Its about carving a spot in the world for yourself when the world will try to keep it from you. "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," may still be my favorite in this trilogy. About a group of beings trying so desperately hard to keep some kind of peace in a dystopian future, while others become consumed with their hate like a harking disease. Then there is "War of the Planet of the Apes," and telling from that title, one would think its the big tamale, the final battle. In lots of ways, it is that, but in just as many ways, it is not that. It would have been very easy to simply turn this entire trilogy into mindless action pictures, and I have to give Fox credit for telling a smart, character-driven story in each of these three movies.

In "War of the Planet of the Apes," Caesar (Andy Serkis) has made a new home deep in the woods. There is a military group of humans called Alpha-Omega that is trying to reach Caesar to kill him. These humans are accompanied by apes who once followed Koba in the previous film. Once the latest skirmish with Alpha-Omega leaves some of Caesar's loved ones dead, he goes on a revenge mission, which leads him down the path to meet The Colonel, played by Woody Harrelson. People are always surprised when I talk Harrelson in serious movies. And while Harrelson may have a line or two that is meant to be funny, he's a snarky, murky villain throughout the entire film. But much like they did with Koba and even Gary Oldman in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," there is a side of Harrelson's Colonel that we recognize. He's not some villain twirling a mustache.

The other great character in the film is portrayed by Steve Zahn, another actor who we usually see in crazy comedies. He plays Bad Ape, a zoo animal that got infected by the Simian Flu long ago and who becomes an ally of Caesar as he goes to confront The Colonel. Zahn has some of the funniest moments in the film just by being innocent, not by being a slapstick character, its amazing how much material in this film feels natural instead of forced. The result is one of the best performances by Zahn in a movie ever.

I have to hand it to today's affects. It seems like the detail in which these apes are brought to life gets more and more impressive every time I sit down to watch one of these. The dirt matting their fur, the snow falling on their faces, it has more detail than you could possibly imagine and I feel they've never looked like they do here in the previous movies. 

But the genius of "War of the Planet of the Apes" and the entire trilogy as a whole is the amazing way Matt Reeves gets the apes to become entire characters and as they tell a story that will cut deep for many viewers. I am not sure everyone who goes into "War of the Planet of the Apes" will be satisfied, because its not a big battle sequence after another. These films have always put character, theme and story first, its not just another action movie. But don't take my words too literal, there are some good action pieces in this. They are just relatively small scale for what we imagine seeing in a summer blockbuster. For a trilogy to come out this emotionally powerful through a major studio system is a triumph in itself.

Will we see more movies? I am not really sure. For hardcore "Planet of the Apes" fans, there are still some events from the previous movies that we haven't seen play out yet, but could very well in the context of this prequel if they choose to make more movies. Telling from the success this last film has had, this is still a bankable franchise and if they keep making movies as piercing as they are exciting, it will remain that way. But if they choose to end it here, it has made a high watermark on Hollywood.

FINAL GRADE: A

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