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

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

Our "Bullshit!" team has unearthed spectacular new evidence, which suggests, that Jack the Ripper was, in fact, the Loch Ness Monster.

Amazon Women on the Moon (1987) Cheeseburger Film Sandwich . Apparently, that’s what the French call Amazon Women on the Moon . Except that it probably sounds a little more elegant, since they’d be saying it in French (I hope so, anyway). Given the title, it should be no surprise that it is regarded as a sequel to Kentucky Fried Movie . Which, in some respects, it is. John Landis originally planned to direct the whole of Amazon Women himself, but brought in other directors due to scheduling issues. The finished film is as much of a mess as Kentucky Fried Movie , arrayed with more miss sketches than hit ones, although it’s decidedly less crude and haphazard than the earlier picture. Some have attempted to reclaim Amazon Women as a dazzling satire on TV’s takeover of our lives, but that’s stretching it. There is a fair bit of satire in there, but the filmmakers were just trying to be funny; there’s no polemic or express commentary. But even on such moderate t

Careful how much boat you’re eating.

Onward (2020) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s Bright , or thereabouts. The interesting thing – perhaps the only interesting thing – about Onward is that it’s almost indiscernible from a DreamWorks Animation effort, where once they cocked a snook at such cheap-seats fare, seeing themselves as better class of animation house altogether. Just about everything in Onward is shamelessly derivative, from the Harry Potter /fantasy genre cash-in to the use of the standard Pixar formula whereby any scenario remotely eccentric or exotic is buried beneath the banal signifiers of modern society: because anything you can imagine must be dragged down to tangible everyday reference points or kids won’t be able to assimilate it. And then there’s the choice of lead voices, in-Disney star-slaves Chris Pratt and Tom Holland.

Wow. Asteroids are made of farts. Okay. I got it.

Greenland (2020) (SPOILERS) Global terror porn for overpopulation adherents as Gerard Butler and his family do their darnedest to reach the safety of a bunker in the titular country in the face of an imminent comet impact. Basically, what if 2012 were played straight? These things come to test cinemas in cycles, of course. Sean Connery struggled with a duff rug and a stack of mud in Meteor , while Deep Impact plumbed for another dread comet and Armageddon an asteroid. The former, owing to the combined forces of Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, was a – relatively – more meditative fare. The latter was directed by Michael Bay. And then there’s Roland Emmerich, who having hoisted a big freeze on us in The Day After Tomorrow then wreaked a relatively original source of devastation in the form of 2012 ’s overheating Earth’s core. Greenland , meanwhile, is pretty much what you’d expect from the director of Angel Has Fallen .

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

Well, I’ll be damned. It’s the gentleman guppy.

Waterworld (1995) (SPOILERS) The production and budgetary woes of “ Kevin’s Gate ” will forever overshadow the movie’s content (and while it may have been the most expensive movie ever to that point – adjusted for inflation, it seems only Cleopatra came close – it has since turned a profit). However, should you somehow manage to avoid the distraction of those legendary problems, the real qualitative concerns are sure to come sailing over the cognitive horizon eventually; Waterworld is just so damned derivative. It’s a seafaring Mad Max. Peter Rader, who first came up with the idea in 1986, admitted as much. David Twohy, who later came aboard, also cited Mad Max 2 ; that kind of rip-off aspect – Jaws birthing Piranha – makes it unsurprising Waterworld was once under consideration by Roger Corman (he couldn’t cost it cheaply enough). Ultimately, there’s never a sufficient sense the movie has managed to become its own thing. Which is a bummer, because it’s frequently quite good fun.