Often gut-wrenching, this may be one of the best mainstream movies of 2017, so far.
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There is an undeniable moment of deus ex machina near the end of War for the Planet of the Apes. Normally, that would be considered a negative in a movie’s script. Here, however, it’s perfectly fitting. You see, following Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ foray into epic Shakespearean territory, there’s really only one way War for the Planet of the Apes could possibly up the ante, and it does so. It goes biblical.
It has been years since the ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) reluctantly resigned himself to war with the human race, and the ongoing conflict has taken a heavy toll on his tribe (or ‘shrewdness’ if one wants to be accurate per The Book of Saint Albans). Now, having reached the conclusion that humankind will never stop until every ape has been eradicated, Caesar makes the decision to lead his people (so to speak) across the desert to a promised land of peace and prosperity.
It’s not that simple, though. Like Pharaoh before him, the humans’ commanding officer, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), has no intention of allowing the apes to simply pack up and go. Not only does The Colonel blame the apes for every ill that has befallen mankind, including the death of his first born, but he also needs them as slaves for reasons that become clear as the story progresses.
To prevent the apes from escaping, The Colonel stages a midnight raid on the ape village, in the process of which he commits a gut-wrenching act of murder that cries out for retaliation. So, even as Caesar orders the rest of the apes to begin their sojourn, he and his closest friends stay behind to seek revenge on The Colonel and his troops.
The trailers for War for the Planet of the Apes would have you believe this situation is a setup for non-stop action, but such is not the case. While the movie has no lack of violent moments as befits wartime, most of the film’s running time revolves around Caesar’s dogged pursuit of The Colonel. It’s a somber, serious trek across a frozen landscape that mirrors the growing coldness in Caesar’s heart. Even the sensible orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) seems unable to stop his friend from being consumed by thoughts of vengeance.
Fortunately for Caesar (and viewers), the simian search party stumbles across a decidedly non-heroic chimpanzee who goes by the name Bad Ape (Steve Zahn). This one-time zoo resident not only provides a bit of crucial information, but also brings some much-needed levity to the proceedings which otherwise run the risk of sinking under the weight of their own seriousness.
They also happen upon a young human girl (Amiah Miller) whom Maurice insists on “adopting.” The child’s introduction plays a pivotal part in the overall story of the Planet of the Apes, and is sure to bring a smile to old school Apes fans everywhere once her name is revealed. With this chapter, the new Apes franchise finally puts in place almost everything it needs for a proper remake (sorry Tim Burton) of the original 1968 classic. I say almost, as there is perhaps a little wiggle room for one more story before that spacecraft launched in Rise of the Planet of the Apes makes it way home.
More importantly, War for the Planet of the Apes brings a satisfying conclusion to Caesar’s story. It’s been a long journey for the one-time test animal, and the weight of all those years show in every expression and gesture of the character. As the weary Caesar, Andy Serkis gives a dark and deeply emotional performance that is sure to have many calling (once again) for the Academy to give in and allow the motion-capture artist the honor of a best actor nomination.
The movie is not without its flaws. It’s a little languidly paced, so those hoping for a tad more action in a movie with “War” in its title may leave the theater somewhat disappointed. And then, of course, there’s that aforementioned moment of deus ex machina, which is usually a sign of lazy writing. That’s not really the case this time around, however, not if one catches onto all the references the movie makes to Moses and the Exodus. It’s hard to complain about divine intervention in that kind of story. But don’t worry, if you somehow miss most of the biblical analogies, the ending makes sure you get the point.
And it’s a very good ending to what has been one of the most well-made trilogies since The Lord of the Rings. War for the Planet of the Apes is without a doubt the best sequel of the year (good luck Star Wars), and possibly even one of the best mainstream movies of the year, though we have a way to go just yet. Two fully opposable thumbs up.