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WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES Review (spoilers)

Yep, I saw another movie today, just a week after saying I couldn’t afford the indulgence much. Don’t worry, I’m not spending the money from my still-ongoing book sale on recreation — I got an unexpected tax refund from the city over the weekend, enough to pay for two movies with a few bucks to spare. So I just had to see War for the Planet of the Apes, which I’d heard such great things about.

And it was very good. I’m actually relieved that the title is, once again, something of a misnomer. For the most part, this wasn’t a war movie. There was a bit of war movie in the beginning, but then it became a revenge-quest movie, almost a Western; and the last half was pretty much a prison-break movie. Indeed, I submit that a better title for this film would’ve been a slight twist on a classic one: Escape to the Planet of the Apes.

But most of all, this is the conclusion of Caesar’s journey, continuing from the first two films. His quest for vengeance and the consequences and lessons he must face are what drive the story, and he manages to remain a deeply sympathetic character even in his darkest moments, because you can see his grim, mournful recognition of what he’s become even as he continues down that path. And of course that’s what leads into his return to a more heroic role later on; the capture of his people moves him away from his personal vendetta to a renewed embrace of his responsibility to those he leads, so that his actions are again guided by compassion and selflessness. What Caesar needed to learn was that the thing about being a leader (as some current real-world leaders are alarmingly incapable of understanding) is that you no longer have the luxury of letting things be about you. Andy Serkis continues to play Caesar brilliantly, and the animators and performance capture artists are as good as ever at conveying and augmenting the nuances of his performance. (Although some of the body movements did look a bit artificial to me at times, with motion seeming to start and stop a bit jerkily with too little momentum. But it was very subtle.)

The Colonel (McCullough) was a very well-written antagonist for Caesar, matching him in complexity. I liked it that, for all that he was a fanatic and maybe a bit mad, he was the more rational of the two. He’d already been through the kind of pain and loss that engulfed Caesar, already made his choice and come out the other side, so he was able to see things more clearly in a way — wrongly, perhaps, but clearly, calculatingly. It was also interesting that he wasn’t a bigot, didn’t look down on apes as inferior. He accepted Caesar as a military leader of equal standing to himself, respected his intelligence and prowess. He allowed his followers to be bigoted, perhaps because it helped motivate them in a war of species survival, but he wasn’t so blind himself. Some very interesting writing there. As for the performance, Woody Harrelson was good enough, but I’ve never seen him as a particularly brilliant actor, and I have trouble not seeing him as the dimwitted kid from Cheers.

There was some standout acting here, but mostly not from humans, at least not speaking ones. Steve Zahn was a lot of fun as the comic-relief Bad Ape, and Karin Konoval’s Maurice and Amiah Miller’s Nova had a touching relationship conveyed through excellent wordless acting.

Most of all, it’s impressive what this movie achieved. The first film was told mainly from a human perspective as Caesar and the intelligent apes first emerged. The second was told about equally from human and ape perspectives. But this one completes the transition, as befits the overarching storyline, and is told entirely from the apes’ POV, with the few humans as the alien threat to be defended against (or assimilated, in Nova’s case). It’s great that they were willing and able to go there. It surely helps that the first two movies laid the groundwork, not only in technology but in character development and performance, to make us want to see a movie told fully from the apes’ perspective. It might be interesting to see a fourth movie, perhaps with Serkis as a grown-up Cornelius, in which there are no speaking human characters at all. (I’m in no hurry for those astronauts seeded in the first movie to show up. These movies have defined their own direction so brilliantly that doing a remake of the original film would seem like a step backward. I’d rather see more exploration of the emergence of ape civilization, the historical gap that wasn’t explored in the original films.)

As far as the human characters go, I’m pleased that the film made at least some attempt to correct the casting problem of the previous one, in which nearly all the prominent human characters were white except for the designated bastard/secondary villain. This film still defaults to white for the two main humans, the Colonel and Nova, but fortunately the other prominent human characters are more diverse, including Gabriel Chavarria as the main soldier character Preacher and Roger Cross and Dean Redman as two of the Colonel’s junior officers. It was a nice surprise to see Cross (whom I met briefly at Shore Leave two years ago) in the film, but disappointing to see him killed off just minutes into the first reel. He deserves better than that; heck, he could’ve played the Colonel at least as well as Harrelson.

Major spoilers ahead:

I’m a little unsure about the climax — the huge human army rolls in, and then gets wiped out in moments by an avalanche? But I guess it isn’t random. For one thing, the avalanche was undoubtedly the result of the explosion Caesar set off. And it may seem awfully convenient, but I suppose it ties into the theme, expressed earlier by the Colonel, of nature punishing humanity for its hubris.

Speaking of which, I think it’s kind of poignantly fitting that what ultimately defeated the Colonel wasn’t violence, but a simple act of kindness by Nova. Because she came to help Caesar and gave him her doll, the Colonel was infected with the very disease he’d murdered so many people to try to stop. I could see that was going to happen the moment I saw the Colonel pick up the doll. In fact, that went very differently than I expected. When Nova snuck into camp, I was horrified, knowing that the Colonel would kill her if he found her. So that was a nerve-racking moment, but it ended up resolving in the opposite way from what I feared. Was that a little too easy? Maybe. But, as with the avalanche, maybe the point was to show the inevitability of the humans’ defeat at the hands of natural forces they could no longer control. And it’s an amazing accomplishment of this movie to make us see that as a happy ending. Maybe because the message is that human life has value with or without our intellect and civilization — that no matter what limitations we have, we deserve to be accepted and cared for, as Nova was by the apes, rather than killed to preserve the status quo. In the end, the apes were more humane than the humans, and so they deserved to win. Although only time will tell if they manage to preserve that empathy or end up building an oppressive society more like that of the original films.

There’s also the unexpected moral ambiguity of Caesar allowing the Colonel to kill himself as an act of compassion. The real revenge at that point would’ve been to condemn the Colonel to survive and infect the rest of his troops, bringing on the very catastrophe he’d fought so hard to prevent. But Caesar was still a decent being at heart, and so he allowed the Colonel to make his own choice. Not that it ultimately made much difference in the grand scheme of things, but in that moment, to the Colonel, it mattered. Considering how much I hate the tendency of movies to kill off the bad guys and make us root for it, I’m surprised to see a movie that makes me see the bad guy’s suicide as a sign of the hero’s positive growth. This is a remarkably nuanced story.

Let’s see, what else? Well, I kinda liked how the opening text exposition worked in the titles of the first two films in its recap. It helps as a mnemonic for which one was Rise and which one was Dawn, and it was a nice touch to have the actual title graphic grow out of the exposition text. Michael Giacchino’s score was very good (hey, he’s scored both the movies I saw in the theater this month); in Dawn, I thought he was evoking the earlier Apes scores by Jerry Goldsmith and Leonard Rosenman, but this score was different, surprisingly John Barry-ish at times. I love how classically cinematic Giacchino’s scores sound. He’s really been firing on all cylinders lately.

So that’s the end of Caesar’s trilogy, and quite a saga it’s been. At some point I’m going to have to binge the entire trilogy back-to-back, experience it as a single whole. It’s a remake that equals the best of its original and surpasses it in quality overall — and certainly has more consistency among its parts, despite the director change after the first film. And it stands on its own as a groundbreaking cinematic achievement. The Apes have indeed evolved.

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DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES Review (Spoilers)

Three years ago, Rise of the Planet of the Apes showed us the dawn of a new species of intelligent ape. Now, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes shows us their rise to — wait, something’s not right there… Better start over.

Ahem. Well, I finally saw this movie, and it’s pretty awesome. The first thing I noted was how extraordinarily realistic the CGI was — that first close-up shot on Caesar’s face looked utterly real and convincing, and I was thinking, “Wow, we’ve really arrived now; there’s no longer any discernible difference between good CGI and reality.” But then the bear attacked and didn’t move like a convincing bear, and I realized that while the technology has fully arrived, it’s still only as good as the way it’s used. Don’t get me wrong, most of the CG work here was fantastic, but it occasionally had enough imperfections to remind us that it’s still a human creation. And maybe that’s for the best. Later on, during the no doubt digitally created shots of the abandoned, decaying San Francisco, I found myself idly missing the days when matte paintings were clearly identifiable as paintings — convincing enough that you were willing to buy into them, but still recognizably the work of talented human hands. Of course, the CG in this film was the work of many, many talented human hands, but not so recognizable as such, and not as easily credited to any one artist, like, say, an Albert Whitlock matte painting in a Hitchcock film would’ve been. (Or Emil Kosa, Jr.’s painting of the Statue of Liberty at the end of the original Planet of the Apes, for that matter.)

I found the apes far more convincing than the bear, though, and that owes a lot to the human performers underlying the animation (although it should be understood that the performances we saw were no doubt mediated heavily by the animators, as in all performance-capture work). One of the last things I noticed, but by far one of the most important things for the film industry as a whole, is that this is probably the first motion picture in which performance-captured actors whose faces never appeared on camera were assigned billing no differently than the on-camera actors were — meaning that Andy Serkis finally, finally got the honest-to-goodness no-kidding star billing that he should’ve gotten in the first film. And it’s not just Serkis’s clout that achieved this, since other ape actors like Toby Kebbel (Koba) and Nick Thurston (Blue Eyes) had their credits mixed in with the “human” actors like Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, and Kirk Acevedo. It was really good to see, because they really deserved it. This is at least as much the apes’ movie as the humans’. Come to think of it, the original series went through a similar progression; the first two movies, the ones with Charlton Heston, were from the perspective of human protagonists, but the later three elevated Roddy McDowall to the starring role; he was the viewpoint character, as both Cornelius and the original Caesar, and the humans were the exotic creatures he had to contend with, or the sticking point in a conflict between him and a rival ape faction. Whereas the previous film was a loose reworking of the premise of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, this one has clear similarities to Battle for…, the final film in the original series.

But while Battle was probably the weakest installment in its series, this film is probably better than its predecessor, even though — or perhaps because — most of its running time is devoted to nonhuman leads who only occasionally speak aloud. The apes have a lot of personality and an interesting society, and I like the hybrid of natural ape behavior (like the outstretched hand as an appeasement gesture), taught sign language, and human cultural elements appropriated knowingly or accidentally. Caesar is the same intelligent, well-intentioned, but psychologically scarred character he was at the end of the first film, but more seasoned and tempered by being a family, err, ape  and a tribal leader/community alpha male. He’s brilliantly played by Serkis, although I profoundly doubt the Oscars will have the good sense to nominate Serkis for lead actor. Koba, Caesar’s main antagonist and the leading warmonger in the film, is something of a caricature, a bit one-note in his hatred and self-serving hunger for power, and unfortunately coded according to “ugly = evil” screen conventions (although his design is left over from the previous film), but he’s an engaging and cunning villain; I love the way he uses the facade of humor and friendliness to get his human foes off their guard. And Maurice (Karin Konoval), the orangutan Lawgiver (essentially), is a lot more charming than his, err, namesake Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans, of course, from the original film) — a bit of a one-dimensional character, but still memorable.

I’m not sure I found the human cast quite as rich. There’s the friendly, understanding hero (Clarke) who’s pretty much explicitly described as a stand-in for James Franco from the first film. There’s his kind, compassionate wife (Russell) who wants to help, and the son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who’s having trouble getting over his mother, and the hardass authority figure (Oldman) whose blind bigotry leads him to violence, and the hair-trigger angry guy (Kirk Acevedo) who’s a secondary source of conflict. Not much more than one dimension to any of these guys. And I couldn’t help being bothered that the story of human survival was carried almost entirely by white characters. There were a couple of black people, but they were just there to be supporting players, and the closest we got to an Asian face was Acevedo, who’s Puerto Rican/Chinese (although he’s never been cast as Asian) and was stuck playing an irrationally violent, cowardly, and doomed supporting character. Demographically speaking, that doesn’t make sense; assuming these survivors came from the San Francisco area, then maybe one in three should be Asian and only two in five should be non-Hispanic Caucasians. The first film did better in this regard, giving us Freida Pinto and David Oyelowo in key roles. (Oh, and if the intent was that white people were somehow more genetically predisposed to immunity, that’s disturbing in its own way — and hard to buy, given that the first two victims of the disease in the first film were both white.)

And while this was a potent and often tragic tale of how hate and intolerance lead to war, and while the battle scenes were effectively un-glamorous and brutal and un-sensationalized, I found myself taken out of the film by one thing: Bottomless Magazines. The way Koba and the others were firing those automatic rifles, they should’ve been out of bullets in five seconds. They clearly didn’t have the training to show any kind of firing discipline. Yet they were able to keep firing in full auto mode throughout the entire battle without ever running dry. Ditto for the humans at Fort Point who were “testing” the surviving artillery by blasting away endlessly. These supplies are finite and they have no idea how numerous the enemy is — should they be wasting so many bullets on “testing” that’s clearly more about macho self-indulgence? Well, I could buy that as the civilians not really knowing what they were doing when it came to firearms, but in the context of the endless ammo throughout the rest of the movie, it feels like part of the larger problem. (There’s also the fact that you can’t just pick up a gun and expect to be able to use it effectively in battle if you’ve never handled one before, if you don’t know how to clean or strip or prime or do whatever to the thing that you need to do. Look, I don’t know guns, I don’t ever want to be in the same room as one, but I read an article a while back debunking this particular myth and talking about how much training it takes to be able to use a firearm effectively and safely. Add on the fact that the guns were designed for human rather than chimpanzee or gorilla hands, and the apes should’ve been doing more damage to each other with those guns than to the humans.)

But those were the three main things I had issues with. Everything else worked well. Michael Giacchino’s score was excellent; he has a knack for evoking the sound and flavor of vintage scores from the ’60s or ’70s, and this score felt like it was a cousin of Jerry Goldsmith’s and Leonard Rosenman’s scores for the original films. (Oddly, Giacchino doesn’t seem to use that knack in his Star Trek film scores, which are the only scores of his that I don’t particularly enjoy.)

So that’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which came after Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Come back in a few years for the third film, Prelude to the Planet of the Apes. Or something. It’s a madhouse! A madhouse!