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War for the Planet of the Apes ••1/2

Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenplay: Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves
Action/Adventure/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 140 minutes
Release Date: July 14, 2017


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, it appears the apes have learned, “War, what is it good for?”

Andy Serkis returns as Caesar – it looks like another Serkis show. Let’s recap:

Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of the ape clan, is deep in the forest but under siege from frequent attacks by a human army called Alpha-Omega. During one attack, he captures several soldiers and learns that a dangerous Colonel (Woody Harrelson) is hellbent on destroying the apes. As a goodwill gesture, Caesar releases the soldiers. During the next attack, however, Caesar’s wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) and son Blue Eyes (Max Lloyd-Jones) are killed. Caesar is infuriated and sets out alone to kill the Colonel.

But his closest friends won’t let him go alone. The four of them happen upon a man who tries to kill them and they kill him instead. Back in his hut is a mute young girl who joins them on their trek. It’s not long before they find Colonel’s base. One of the turncoat apes tells Caesar that Colonel and his team have trekked off to a detention base where they are going to meet another army troupe. So, Caesar, his three friends, and a tagalong little girl start their journey to intercept and kill the Colonel.

Greg, once again we’re faced with the task of reviewing a movie that’s a tiny slice of a larger story arc. For me, this makes evaluation of the film difficult. If we consider this movie individually, solely on its own merits, it is less than satisfying. There are long, drawn out scenes devoted to character development. These scenes are effective in that regard, and in the context of the larger whole (i.e., the complete Ape franchise) these scenes are probably necessary for good storytelling. But they make this installment of the franchise a slow slog at times.

For now, let me focus on the positives. War for the Planet of the Apes does succeed is offering up stunning cinematography and remarkable CGI effects. These talking, intelligent apes are more realistic than ever, and scenes involving snowy mountain vistas and fiery battle scenes are breathtaking. As with previous Planet of the Apes films, I applaud the portrayal of variations within complex groupings of apes and humans, as well as the depiction of myriad leadership processes. The social psychology here oozes with riveting realism.

Scott, I thought this film failed on nearly every level. The only thing they got right was the ability to give Caesar (and not many else) great facial emotion. But the rest of the CGI was dialed in. In the prequels to this film, we can see ape hairs fluttering in the wind. But in War the ape hairs look like they are matted down with wax. There are scenes where an ape is walking around in the background. And you can nearly see the green screen outline.

The story is nothing short of ridiculous. Take, for instance, the fact that Harrelson’s Colonel tries to kill Caesar in the first act. Then in the second act, when Caesar is in his concentration camp, he keeps him alive. The only reason for this is so that Caesar can give a rousing speech and make the apes revolt for food and water. Colonel should have killed Caesar right away.

And why did Caesar and friends take on a tagalong little girl? And after the apes killed her father, why would she have anything but hatred for them? And apparently the only reason Bad Ape gives her a gift is so that one of the apes can name her “Nova” – because that makes everything come full circle. This was nothing short of a “stitcher” movie designed to make all the loose ends of previous films come to a conclusion – by hook or by crook. It didn’t need to make sense, it only needed the end to come back to the beginning.

I do agree that this film goes to great lengths to make humans look bad and apes look good. The humans are portrayed as monolithically evil, and this point is hammered home when a soldier that Caesar freed earlier is the one who delivers the death blow to Caesar. The apes are far more heterogeneous, and Caesar is a far wiser and more merciful leader than the bloodthirsty Colonel. So that’s why Caesar and friends take the girl with them — to show us that they have a heart so that we’ll root for them.

Another problem with the story is the remarkably convenient avalanche that wipes out all the surviving humans at the end. Yes, we’re happy that the good guys (the apes) survived their ordeal, but for survival to hinge on a freakish act of nature rather than on cunning or courage from our heroic apes, well, that left a bad taste in my mouth. Another absurdity at the end was the (again) convenient placement of enormous fuel tanks all around the defense perimeter of the fort. That sure made Caesar’s task of blowing up the place easy.

This year we’re evaluating the hero’s story and the hero’s transformation. As this movie is a mere slice of a larger whole, there isn’t much to go talk about. This suggests to me that these large, multi-movie arcs need to be binge-watched to be fully appreciated. Caesar transformed the most in the first installment of this franchise, slightly more in the second installment as he ascended into leadership, but here there isn’t much growth for Caesar. If anything, he regresses to adopting a Koba mentality, which is hardly heroic.

You’re right, Caesar falls into a revenge plot and it makes him look bad. But the good news is that his surrounding friends look even more heroic. Caesar does come away looking like a strong leader. And he event looks a bit like a martyr at times. But you’re right, Scott – there’s little transformation for him in this film, or for anyone else.

War for the Planet of the Apes has only one mission – to tie together the beginning and the ending of the series. It does so leaving visible seams. There are long meaningless scenes where little happens but Caesar looks into the camera. There are excruciatingly long scenes where someone explains everything in the movie. Notably, the villain exposition by the Colonel goes on for five minutes and is basically a recap of a movie we’ll never see. I was bored to tears. I give War for the Planet of the Apes 2 out of 5 Reels.

Caesar demonstrates few heroic qualities. He kills with impunity. He wants revenge on the man who killed his family and that blinds him making good decisions. He puts his trusted friends into danger. I didn’t find him interesting or sympathetic. I can only give him 2 out of 5 Heroes.

There are no real transformations to speak of. Caesar doesn’t come to any conclusions about humans and apes. He leads his people out of the mountains and into a valley where he leaves them to live beyond the reach of the humans. I can only muster 2 Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes: 

War for the Planet of the Apes works quite well as part of a larger story arc but fails to satisfy on its own 2-hour merits. I appreciated the attempt to slow down the action for the purpose of developing character depth. Some viewers, such as you, Greg, and to some extent myself as well, may find the slow pace to be burdensome to endure. After writhing through many of this summer’s high-octane action movies, I welcomed this slower pace to some degree. Still, this film suffers from improbable and convenient occurrences at the end to resolve the hero’s mission. Overall, the best I can do is award this movie 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey is but a mere slice of a larger story arc. Caesar sets out to avenge his family members’ deaths, a rather dubious hero’s mission, but he does defeat the bad guys and save many ape lives along the way. He also rediscovers his compassion and wisdom from watching the actions of a young girl whom he rescues. Caesar’s leadership is mostly inspired, and for that reason I can award him 3 Hero points out of 5.

Regarding transformation, Caesar does show some regression and negative influence from his departed friend Koba, but Caesar’s true heroic colors come to the fore in the end when he does right by sparing the Colonel’s life. These changes in Caesar are rather mild but they are there, and I’ll thus give him 3 transformation Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

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