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…

What do you want to be? Rich or dead?

Blake's 7 1.3: Cygnus Alpha

Well, the quality couldn’t last. Vere Lorrimer does a solid job directing this one, and the night shooting adds atmosphere in spades. Unfortunately the religious cult on a prison planet just isn’t that interesting (notably, big Brian Blessed was about the only well-known British thesp who wasn’t cast in the similarly themed Alien 3).

It’s Who-central from the off with lovely lovely lovely Kara (Pamela Salem – The Robots of Death and Remembrance of the Daleks) and the Caber, I mean Laran (Robert Russell, Terror of the Zygons) noting the incoming London. Which reuses a shot from Space Fall (the spinning object is a planet, clearly one with an unhealthy speed of rotation).
The length of journey issues in this story don’t bear much analysis. It’s now four months since the events of Space Fall, and poor old Leylan has clearly been affected badly by what went down. But he’s only now sending his report? Useful for the wayward viewer, but a bit slack otherwise.

So.…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She's killed my piano.

Rocketman (2019)
(SPOILERS) Early on in Rocketman, there’s a scene where publisher Dick James (Stephen Graham) listens to a selection of his prospective talent’s songs and proceeds to label them utter shite (but signs him up anyway). It’s a view I have a degree of sympathy with. I like maybe a handful of Elton John’s tunes, so in theory, I should be something of a lost cause with regard to this musical biopic. But Rocketman isn’t reliant on the audience sitting back and gorging on naturalistic performances of the hits in the way Bohemian Rhapsody is; Dexter Fletcher fully embraces the musical theatre aspect of the form, delivering a so-so familiar story with choreographic gusto and entirely appropriate flamboyance in a manner that largely compensates. Largely.

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

Move away from the jams.

Aladdin (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was never overly enamoured by the early ‘90s renaissance of Disney animation, so the raves over Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin left me fairly unphased. On the plus side, that means I came to this live action version fairly fresh (prince); not quite a whole new world but sufficiently unversed in the legend to appreciate it as its own thing. And for the most part, Aladdin can be considered a moderate success. There may not be a whole lot of competition for that crown (I’d give the prize to Pete’s Dragon, except that it was always part-live action), but this one sits fairly comfortably in the lead.

Isn’t Johnnie simply too fantastic for words?

Suspicion (1941)
(SPOILERS) Suspicion found Alfred Hitchcock basking in the warm glow of Rebecca’s Best Picture Oscar victory the previous year (for which he received his first of five Best Director nominations, famously winning none of them). Not only that, another of his films, Foreign Correspondent, had jostled with Rebecca for attention. Suspicion was duly nominated itself, something that seems less unlikely now we’ve returned to as many as ten award nominees annually (numbers wouldn’t be reduced to five until 1945). And still more plausible, in and of itself, than his later and final Best Picture nod, Spellbound. Suspicion has a number of claims to eminent status, not least the casting of Cary Grant, if not quite against type, then playing on his charm as a duplicitous quality, but it ultimately falls at the hurdle of studio-mandated compromise.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

No one is very happy. Which means it's a good compromise, I suppose.

Game of Thrones  Season 8
(SPOILERS) How many TV series that rely on ongoing plotlines – which is most of them these days – have actually arrived at a wholly satisfying conclusion? As in, one that not only surprises but pays off the investment viewers have made over (maybe) seven or eight years? I can think of a few that shocked or dazzled (Angel, The Leftovers) and some that disappointed profoundly (Lost) but most often, they end on an “okay” (reasonably satisfying, if you like) rather than on a spectacular or, conversely, enormously disappointing note. Game of Thrones may not have paid off for many vocal fans who’d accept nothing less than note-perfect rendering of certain key desired developments, but much of the season unfolded in a manner that seemed just the kind of thing I would have expected; not, on the whole, shocking, blind-siding, or (give-or-take) spectacular, but okay, or reasonably satisfying.

Looks as though vaudeville may have just decided to fight back.

The Avengers 6.7: Look – (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One) But There Were These Two Fellers…
Well, it took a while, but The Avengers finally rediscovers the sparkle of the best Rigg era episodes thanks to a Dennis Spooner teleplay (his first credit since the first season), one that spreads itself just about as broadly as it’s possible for the show to go – Look – (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One) But There Were These Two Fellers… was purportedly rejected for the Rigg run for just that reason – but which is also nigh on perfect in pace, structure and characterisation. And guest spots.