As long as wars and battles rage,
The world will yearn for peace;
So says the pacifist with sage
Detachment and release.
Yet when the battles come too close
And reap their ruthless wound,
How quick is he made bellicose,
His former faith impugned!
Yes, grief can make the wholesome hate,
The peaceful prime for war.
Sometimes their conscience wakes too late,
With much to answer for.
MPAA rating: PG-13
Perhaps the most surprising thing about these new Planet of the Apes movies is how good they are compared with how bad they could have been. Think about it: apes using sign language, sparse and simple dialogue, “monkeys riding horses,” as Everybody Loves Raymond once put it, concepts that could so easily become laughable. And yet both Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes raised the bar for what this science fiction series could be, and 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes continued the high quality and stuck the landing, so to speak.
Picking up two years after Dawn, this end to the trilogy sees Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his band of intelligent apes embattled with a military garrison led by the fanatical Colonel (Woody Harrelson, in grand villainous mode). There is plenty of wreckage still from Koba’s uprising in Dawn, from defecting gorillas siding with the humans against Caesar to the emotional baggage of Koba’s and Caesar’s actions. When the Colonel exacts a personal toll on Caesar’s family, the ape leader starts to share in Koba’s hatred and soon sets out with his most loyal friends on a quest for revenge. The story morphs several times as it goes, from western-like journeying through snowy mountains to brutal incarceration to a thrilling prison escape tale, all while following Caesar’s emotional rollercoaster and completing the allegorical Moses narrative begun in Rise.
With each film in this trilogy, the visual effects have gotten more and more polished. The previous two still had moments when I could tell the apes weren’t real, but War makes them as realistic as any effect I’ve seen. Even if motion-capture technology is perhaps not entirely perfected, it’s jaw-droppingly convincing at this point, which allows the apes’ emotions to be as clearly conveyed as any of the human characters’. The characters behind that effects façade are also better defined here than in prior films. The chimp Rocket and orangutan Maurice have been with Caesar since the first film, and while they barely registered in Dawn, the fact that they join Caesar on his trek allows them to stand out better from the rest of the apes. Also joining them is the eccentric Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a zoo escapee who adds some much-needed humor to an otherwise bleak tale.
My VC has had a more restrained appreciation for these movies, admiring the visual skill but finding the execution a bit plodding and slow-paced. Even so, she found the story of War to be the strongest of the three, and although I prefer Dawn, War had the clearest character arc of the three, continued the subtle references to past movies, and worked in some evidence of how the world becomes as Charlton Heston found it in the original.
I agree with her that the pacing could be tighter, particularly during the grueling prison scenes, but these films aren’t content to be mere action spectacles. They instead tackle deeper moral questions and universal themes of humanity, enlivened by moments of refreshing sweetness and stunning action. They’re a rare breed of blockbuster, and if their example overran Hollywood, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
Best line: (Caesar) “If we strive but fail, and the world remains armed against itself, then we’ve been divided, because the hunger for peace is in the hearts of all.”
Rank: List-Worthy (joining the previous two)
© 2017 S.G. Liput
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