Friday, July 14, 2017

Monkey Business: WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES



War for the Planet of the Apes, the finale for the trilogy that is Fox’s most recent attempt to restart the venerable sci-fi franchise, is the heaviest picture yet concocted for this series. And that’s saying something, when back in the 70s it gave us a film that ended with the planet Earth exploding, then improbably followed that up with a sequel that kindly supposed three beings escaped the destruction only to see them to their violent deaths a couple hours later. But that was decades ago, and done with a sense of sharp pulp fun. Now, though, War’s director Matt Reeves, returning from the previous entry, treats the ongoing conflict gravely. After Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – a dour, but thrillingly charged allegory for intractable armed conflict – the band of mind-bogglingly convincing CG primates lead by Caesar (Andy Serkis), the smartest of their kind, have continued to retreat into the woods. They fend off attacks from humans, but only in defense. They want to be peaceful, but continue to be dragged into war by men – and they’re all men here – who fear them. Mankind knows its time is up – ravaged by disease and facing apes of undeniable intellectual equality – and would rather go down fighting than slowly die out. 

Reeves takes this idea as seriously as possible. He shoots the film like a Holocaust drama, suffusing a gunmetal grey and mottled mud palate with a somber heaviness as it captures atrocities inflicted upon bodies ape and human alike. Our primate heroes are slaughtered, captured, carted away, and forced into slave narratives and POW trauma. The people – heavily armed, and adorned with graffiti like “Bedtime for Bonzo” and “Ape-pocalypse Now” – get sick, and act sicker. The raw materials of blockbuster dazzlement – effects, explosions, CGI monkeys, and loud armories – have a pall cast over them. Sure, you might think it’d be fun to watch apes ride horses and root for them against dastardly military madmen. But Reeves wants to make sure it hurts, too. This has always been a series of films interested in the damage mankind does to itself and others, the venal and violent tendencies burbling underneath that lead us inevitably to our doom. Sometimes the apes who take over are stand-ins for minorities and the oppressed. Sometimes they also represent, in true Animal Farm fashion, the worst human qualities, as the more like men they become – walking upright, speaking, organizing – the worse they behave. It’s rich sociopolitical text, but War’s grinding depression and repetitive thematic inquiry mutes its impact. As a fitting conclusion to this Caesar’s story – here hoping to take his clan to the promised land, one step ahead of the Kurtz-y colonel on their tail (Woody Harrelson) – it ties up loose ends. As a continuation or furthering of the ideas – visual and otherwise – that were so thrillingly novel in Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 kickoff Rise of the Planet of the Apes and expertly complicated in Dawn, it’s nothing much, flatter and, worse, routine.

The film carries itself with the gravity of a historical epic, moved with grim contemplation and constructed as if preordained. Of course, because this is nominally prequel narrative to the planet of apes Charlton Heston (or Mark Wahlberg) would discover centuries later, it is preordained. We know where this is heading. In his concept of the fall of man and rise of ape, Reeves (co-writing with screenwriter Mark Bomback), makes this film at once sweeping and small, massive in implication and intimate in execution. It follows Caesar and his compatriots across mountains and beaches and forests, and yet boils down to small confrontations, a tiny cast of speaking roles, and tight closeups – chimp and man growling philosophy in terse conversations and patient shot/reverse shot. The planet is irrevocably changed, and it happens largely offscreen, indifferent to the dramas of the players on the film’s center stage. It’s an environmentalist lament about species struggling to survive, a pacifist’s sorrow about the inevitability of violence begetting violence, an idealist’s compromises to gain a better future for his followers. This contributes to the heaviness of the film, but it also gums up the spectacle, growing humorless (a delightful comic relief Steve Zahn ape notwithstanding) and cold. We watch apes slowly put plans into action as men with guns and tanks move into position to take them out once and for all, but not before working them nearly to death to build last-ditch human battlements. It’s involving and interesting without ever tipping over into compelling or emotionally satisfying. Still, the all-consuming mood is effective, enveloping, and hard to shake, a bleak drumbeat of pessimism and glum resignation. Even the rattling action comes booming with a sense of doom, sorrowfully leaving bodies piled high.

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