July 22, 2017 -- While you can never duplicate the shock of the twist ending of “Planet of the Apes” (1968) this latest sequel, “War for the Planet of the Apes,” third film in the rebooted series, might just be the best ape movie of them all.
This is the ninth ape movie, according to Wikipedia, with four sequels in the original series of films in the past millenium, a Tim Burton remake at the dawn of this century in 2001, then, finally, the current reboot trilogy, which began in 2011 with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” followed by “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”
The current trilogy inventively explains how we could arrive at a point in time in the future when apes rule and men drool. In the original film, it seemed to have something to do with nuclear war. In this current series of films, the change happens, perhaps from a combination of factors, climate change and genetic engineering gone awry. Both scenarios are scary enough.
As this film opens, a war is brewing between the apes, whose brainpower has been enhanced by a genetically engineered virus intended to cure Alzheimer's disease. The same virus has wiped out most of the humans, and the virus has mutated to cause other changes in the surviving human population. Despite the plague, the humans still seem to have some well organized military units running around causing trouble. One of these units is led by a crazed, morally damaged colonel played by Woody Harrelson who is determined to kill the apes, and to kill humans affected by the virus as well.
The Colonel attacks the ape stronghold in the forest, killing the wife and son of the ape leader Caesar (played by motion capture actor Andy Serkis of the “Lord of the Rings” series). Caesar, enraged, vows to hunt the Colonel down and kill him. At the same time, the apes have found a new sanctuary far away and they head off, determined to reach this new promised land, while Caesar and a few others stay behind to attack the camp of the humans.
This pair of journeys, one to the promised land, the other into the heart of darkness, comprises the rest of the film. Caesar's emotional journey from pure hatred to understanding parallels his journey into danger. As he rides along towards the Colonel's camp, he and his small band encounter another ape who years ago escaped from a zoo and learned to speak, “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn of “Dallas Buyers Club”). They also gather up another straggler, a gentle, mute human girl Nova (Amiah Miller) after Caesar kills her father in a confrontation.
One member of this group, the Orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval, reprising her role from the previous two films in this series) acts as Caesar's conscience. Maurice embodies the best of human values, while trying to keep Caesar from slipping over to the dark side. Nova is even more gentle and kind. Caesar broods and plots his revenge, but is gradually calmed by the influence of Maurice, Nova and his other companions.
Caesar is eventually captured by the Colonel's men. There are a series of confrontations between Caesar and the Colonel. Caesar gradually learns that the Colonel is a complicated man who has suffered his own emotional losses. He also learns that the human situation is more complicated than he thought it was, and he discovers other captives as well.
There is of course, a final battle, and a final confrontation between the Colonel and Caesar, but the story isn't as simple as it seems at first, and it defies expectations. Andy Serkis and the other motion capture actors do a superb job, as does young Amiah Miller and Harrelson. The special effects and the computer generated images based on the motion capture performances are impressive in this film. Writer-director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”) does great work in this film, which is both epic and intimate.
In the near future it would be fitting for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to recognize Andy Serkis for his talents as a motion capture and voice actor, and for his contributions as a pioneer in this evolving art form. This movie is far above most sequels. It represents the crowning achievement in a storied film franchise which has seen significant highs and laughable lows in the past. This film rates a B+.
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