Skip to main content

This is our last stand. And if we lose... it will be a planet of apes.

War for the Planet of the Apes
(2017)

(SPOILERS) It isn’t difficult to see why War of the Planet of the Apes didn’t open as well as its predecessor and is unlikely to come close to its gross; it plays it safe. Which sounds odd to say, for such a dark, downbeat, (almost) relentlessly grim blockbuster, but the lack of differentiation between this and its dark, downbeat, (almost) relentlessly grim predecessor suggests Matt Reeve and Fox thought more of the same would tickle its audience’s anthropoid itch, when in fact it only leads to a lack of differentiation. Which is a shame, as War of the Planet of the Apes is (mostly) an accomplished movie, expertly directed by Reeves and performed with due conviction by its mo-capped (and otherwise) cast.


It does seem a tad churlish to complain about what a movie might have been when it maintains the series’ consistent high quality, but I’m now firmly in the camp of wishing some of the more tonally-varied content of the original pictures was finding its way into this re-envisaging.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first two thirds of War of the Planet of the Apes are the most engrossing, in which Caesar’s quest for revenge runs in tandem with various mysteries (what is happening to the humans, why is the Colonel killing his own) as well as dropping nuggets of series lore (Cornelius, Nova, Alpha-Omega).


Caesar’s downfall, putting his personal vendetta above the welfare of his brood, is potently depicted through, leading to a fitting ending that emphasises no good can come from such thinking, but I nevertheless had the lurking feeling that these weren’t the actions of the Caesar we knew, whereby at some point he ought to have regrouped, rationalised and taken the higher path (Reeves, bending Caesar into the shape of the story he wishes to tell, on some level appears to recognise this, feeding the Colonel observations like “Always so emotional”).


The picture is more inspired prior to the arrival at the ape gulag, taking in encounters (Nova, Bad Ape) and moral quandaries. Once imprisoned by the Colonel, Reeves ups the tension, and Woody Harrelson more than fills the boots of main antagonist, with his own considered motivation, but there’s little sense we’re breaking any new ground. We’re swapping out an ape baddie (Koba, who resurfaces in Caesar’s troubled visions of the ape he fears he is becoming) for a human one, and we’re back in a grey, drab, washed-out milieu.


The narrative and thematic oppositions, while powerfully conveyed, lack the compellingly grand plotting of the first four originals (whatever their individual defects). Sure, a prison break movie with apes is a reasonable idea, but didn’t we already get a prison break in Rise of the Planet of the Apes? And with considerably less reliance on conveniently-placed tunnels, just waiting to be fallen into, conveniently-placed flammable fuel tanks, just waiting to explode and wipe out all the humans on the battlements (it’s a wonder they required Caesar to blow them up, as one good flyby of those army helicopters ought to have done the job), and a conveniently-placed pile of snow, just waiting to avalanche the area (one can only assume the Colonel wasn’t up to snuff long before the virus mutated him into a mute).


With regard to the mechanics of the virus mutation, if the Colonel is right in his analysis, then Nova, who we have invested in as the most genuine character in the picture, is doomed to devolve into a primitive/mentally feeble state; a reflection of how upbeat this series is. And the Colonel does seem fairly certain, hence shooting himself in the head. As to the significance of the infecting toy, if humans carry the (presumably mutating) virus anyway? It needs an external trigger? Or does it simply come with the territory of a magic virus that dumbs down humans while simultaneously evolving apes, such that Nova imbues Maurice with the ability to speak? Reeves leaves it a little grey, but if it’s maybe a little too neat for material that otherwise thrives on “realism”, it works thematically.


I have other niggles; honestly, the quasi-biblical elements of sacrificed children, floods and promised lands didn’t do an awful lot for me (having in mind Caesar as a Moses-type is one thing, but over garnishing it visually is another). And do we really need foregrounding of “Ape-ocalypse Now” on graffiti in a movie already nursing Woody’s possessed Colonel shaving his bald pate while delivering a cogent thesis on his fine madness?


But the characters are where this series has been most celebrated, and it’s Reeves skill in this quarter that consistently prevents the picture from becoming an over-familiar trudge. It isn’t for nothing that these Apes movies have been trumpeted as an unlikely example of intelligent, nuanced blockbusters (although, this is equally true of the originals). Serkis is yet again a powerhouse as Caesar. Less showy but still hugely compelling is Karin Konoval as the mostly mute Maurice – the effects work is all-round great, but on Maurice particularly so – who gets possibly the most affecting subplot in respect of his parental feelings towards young Nova (Amiah Miller).


Reeves elicits a fine moppet performance from Miller, particularly in expressing Nova’s grief over the death of Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), so it’s a shame she’s doomed to mindless oblivion. And it would be more powerful still if not for the shamelessly over-emphatic Michael Giacchino score. He’s a composer whose work I usually admire, but here seems to be under the illusion this a movie from the Hollywood Golden Age, where the soundtrack’s responsibility is to treat the audience like emotional idiots in need of a guiding ear. Steven Zahn also provides a welcome light touch as the disturbed but comical chimp Bad Ape, able to speak and fond of wearing body warmers. Even an ape like Red (Ty Olsson), loathsome in his cruelty, is offered an arc of sorts and a final glimpse of salvation.


Fox has now completed a Caesar trilogy, and one assumes, even if receipts are down, they’ll be planning a further trilogy to cover the events of the ’67 Planet of the Apes. Whatever tentative ideas there are for Reeves continuing with the baton, I suspect he’ll move on; he pulls his punches creatively somewhat here, such that new blood and ideas would be sensible at this point, albeit with the proviso of Andy Serkis returning, now as the adult Cornelius (much as Roddy McDowall doubled up roles in the originals).


We’re now at the point of mute humans, with apes all-but ready to take command, so labouring a holding pattern of further internecine simian struggles will only lead to further diminished returns. Deliver us the returning astronaut thrown into an upside-down milieu, the underground mutants (already referenced by the Colonel’s Alpha-Omega faction), but, without the dictating Chuck factor, moving on past the point Beneath left us for a distinct trilogy capper, without that decimated planet (that nihilism, potent as it was, closed off all other plot avenues, except for time-travelling ones). There’s a lot of juice left in this series, but being caught in yet another gritty ape power play is unlikely to result in fresh ideas or stimulating storytelling and all-important box office.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

By Jove, the natives are restless tonight.

The Avengers 4.17: Small Game for Big Hunters
I wonder if Death at Bargain Prices’ camping scene, suggestive of an exotic clime but based in a department store, was an inspiration for Small Game For Big Hunters’ more protracted excursion to the African country of Kalaya… in Hertfordshire. Gerry O’Hara, in his second of two episodes for the show again delivers on the atmosphere, making the most of Philip Levene’s teleplay.

Two hundred thousand pounds, for this outstanding example of British pulchritude and learning.

The Avengers 4.18: The Girl From Auntie
I’ve mentioned that a few of these episodes have changed in my appreciation since I last watched the series, and The Girl from Auntie constitutes a very pronounced uptick. Indeed, I don’t know how I failed to rate highly the estimable Liz Fraser filling in for Diana Rigg – mostly absent, on holiday –for the proceedings (taking a not dissimilar amateur impostor-cum-sidekick role to Fenella Fielding in the earlier The Charmers). I could watch Fraser all day, and it’s only a shame this was her single appearance in the show.

Romulan ale should be illegal.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
(SPOILERS) Out of the ST:NG movies, Star Trek: Nemesis seems to provoke the most outrage among fans, the reasons mostly appearing to boil down to continuity and character work. In the case of the former, while I can appreciate the beef, I’m not enough of an aficionado to get too worked up. In the case of the latter, well, the less of the strained inter-relationships between this bunch that make it to the screen, the better (director Stuart Baird reportedly cut more than fifty minutes from the picture, most of it relating to underscoring the crew, leading to a quip by Stewart that while an Actor’s Cut would include the excised footage, a Director’s one would probably be even shorter). Even being largely unswayed by such concerns, though, Nemesis isn’t very good. It wants to hit the same kind of dramatic high notes as The Wrath of Khan (naturally, it’s always bloody Khan) but repeatedly drifts into an out-of-tune dirge.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

Cally. Help us, Cally. Help Auron.

Blake's 7 3.7: Children of Auron

Roger Parkes goes a considerable way towards redeeming himself for the slop that was Voice from the Past with his second script for the series, and newcomer Andrew Morgan shows promise as a director that never really fulfilled itself in his work on Doctor Who (but was evident in Knights of God, the 1987 TV series featuring Gareth Thomas).

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …