29 July 2017

Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

(Dir: Matt Reeves, 2017)

An example of a pleasing film watching scenario – you've seen the previous two films in the series and you liked them both as they were very good. But you've struggled to get excited about watching the third. You're not sure this series needs stretching out any further, and the trailer for this new film is doing a far from stellar job at selling you what's on offer this time. More fighting and battles, blah blah blah. Excitement levels are at zero. But you have an opportunity to go to the cinema that you're not going to pass up, and times mean it has to either be this, or that rebooted yet-again superhero desperately trying to tie into an existing interconnected universe – excitement levels for that option so far below zero. So you make the obvious decision. And then, unsurprisingly, you emerge from the cinema pretty damn excited about what you've just seen.

We've had two films to get to know the character of Caesar, watching him learn, grow and grapple with the humanity being forced upon him. So it's satisfying to see War for the Planet of the Apes make the very brave, and wise, decision to turn him into the full on lead character. In the first film he was always just a key character, a plot device if you will, as James Franco and Freida Pinto led the story, whilst the second film saw him become a major character alongside Jason Clarke and Keri Russell's leads. But here, with one small exception, it essentially boils down to apes good, humans bad. The film follows Caesar and his cohort as they try to defend themselves, with most of the screen time dedicated to Caesar. That's a testament, not only to how good the special effects are, but to how good Andy Serkis' motion-capped performance of the character is. The film never feels like it needs a human to base the story around, as Caesar is so well realised that everything you would normally expect from a human character is on offer as you feel his every emotion, be it joy or apoplectic rage. The same applies to the supporting apes – Maurice, Rocket, etc – whom we have seen before and who continue to impress. Plus new addition Bad Ape (portrayed by Steve Zahn – one of those 'of course it is!' realisations) who adds much needed moments of light relief.

The focus on these characters and their mish-mash of communication means we have a major Hollywood film with a surprisingly small amount of dialogue. Some apes speak but with limited vocabularies, some sign which we see translated as subtitles, creating a somewhat refreshing experience as it puts more focus on their actions and the visuals. That's not to say it's entirely lacking dialogue – Woody Harrelson's very human Colonel is certainly verbose. This a chew the scenery role for Harrelson as he pushes the character into over-the-top territory, but it works in the context of the film, offering a balance when most of the characters are apes, pushing you to root for them rather than humans. And what we see of his character as the story climaxes makes him more interesting than most villains in this type of film.

Limiting the dialogue puts more burden on the sound design and music, but it pushes these to work harder and the film feels more evocative because of it. Maybe watching in a Dolby Atmos equipped screen helped, but everything from the tribal drumming to the sounds of the natural environment, monkey calls to explosions and the violence of battle all work in harmony, greatly enhancing the film. Despite the trailer making out it's all battles, this is definitely not the case. The opening scene operates along these lines and is superb, but there's more going on in between this and the inevitable climax, as the story shifts between aping a few different classic film tropes. This helps to keep things moving and holds our interest, never feeling like ideas flung to the wall in the hope they stick.

If you've seen the first two films, the quality of War for the Planet of the Apes should come as no surprise. What is surprising is how effectively it works by mostly jettisoning the human element and having CGI apes as emotionally complex and sympathetic lead characters. It's because of brave decisions like this, and just an overall high quality of film-making, that War ends up being the best part of this trilogy. Subtle allusions to the original films are fun and signpost where a future story could go, but that's not something we need. Sometimes a neatly wrapped up trilogy is just enough.

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