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Apes! To­gether! En­ter­tain­ing?

DI­REC­TOR Matt Reeves

STAR­RING Andy Serkis, Woody Har­rel­son, Steve Zahn, Karin Kono­val

PLOT Two years af­ter the events of Dawn, the hu­man mil­i­tary comes to kill Cae­sar (Serkis). The botched as­sas­si­na­tion leaves the ape’s wife and son dead and any hope of peace­ful co­ex­is­tence in tat­ters. Con­sumed by rage and grief, Cae­sar sends his apes to safety and sets out on a per­sonal quest for vengeance. NOMEN­CLA­TURE HAS AL­WAYS been an is­sue for the Planet Of The Apes re­boot se­ries. The Apes’ Rise con­fus­ingly pre­ceded their Dawn, which ended with a war. Mean­while, this War, which fol­lows the one in Dawn, con­tains lit­tle ac­tual war­fare but a fair bit of up­ris­ing.

Dis­ap­pointed? Don’t be. Af­ter the last film’s bal­lis­tic fi­nale, it would have been easy for Matt Reeves to sit back and hurl fur and fire­balls at the screen for two hours as the bat­tle be­tween hu­mans and ho­minids came to a head. But Reeves is no Michael Bay, and War is a sub­tler beast than its ti­tle im­plies.

The film be­gins with an ar­bo­real fire­fight and a camo-striped hit squad in­vad­ing the apes’ abode. But Reeves soon shifts down a gear, plac­ing the em­pha­sis more on in­ter­nal rather than ex­ter­nal con­flicts. Cae­sar spent Dawn preach­ing tol­er­ance to a re­venge-ob­sessed Koba (Toby Kebbell) but here, plagued by vi­sions of his for­mer friend, he falls into his own heart of dark­ness. Un­able to set his griev­ances aside, Cae­sar — ac­com­pa­nied by Rocket (Terry No­tary), Luca (Michael Adamth­waite) and gen­tle gi­ant Mau­rice (Karin Kono­val) — em­barks upon a jour­ney ‘up­river’ to kill Woody Har­rel­son’s swivel-eyed Colonel.

War is the sec­ond an­gry ape movie to ho­mage Cop­pola’s ’Nam epic this year, fol­low­ing in Skull Is­land’s sig­nif­i­cantly larger (though still No­tary-shaped) foot­steps. Graf­fiti in the Colonel’s com­pound even spells it out, snatch­ing the low-hang­ing pun from lazy jour­nal­ists with a hastily scrawled ‘Ape-poca­lypse Now’. But as the small group jour­neys, on horse­back, through the moun­tains — pick­ing up a mute hu­man girl (Amiah Miller) along the way — the film more closely adopts the feel of a ’50s Western: its five rid­ers set­ting forth into a sweep­ing new fron­tier. But while the bristling tree lines and jagged peaks of the Cana­dian Rock­ies make for a stun­ning back­drop, even na­ture’s beauty can’t hold a can­dle to Weta’s.

Dawn’s chest-thump­ing per­for­mance boldly de­clared the state of the dig­i­tal art, drop­ping pho­to­real pri­mates into a for­est shoot with seam­less pre­ci­sion. War’s chimp col­lec­tive is no less im­pres­sive, wow­ing with its verisimil­i­tude (marvel at the damp dig­i­tal fur and snowy pixel pelts) and dazzling with its sub­tlety. The apes have never been more ex­pres­sive, and while most still sign rather than speak (although Cae­sar’s dic­tion has ad­vanced in leaps and bounds), the emo­tion con­veyed by their fur­rowed faces are worth a dozen pages of di­a­logue. “My God,” de­clares the Colonel, see­ing Cae­sar up close for the first time.

“Look at your eyes. Al­most hu­man.”

It’s no sur­prise at this point that Serkis’ is a mon­key who knows his busi­ness. Ce­ment­ing his cre­den­tials as one of the most gifted (and over­looked) ac­tors cur­rently work­ing, Serkis not only cap­tures the chimp phys­i­cal­ity per­fectly, but im­bues Cae­sar with both el­e­men­tal fury and a hard-edged com­pas­sion, fur­ther shap­ing the evo­lu­tion that be­gan two films ago. Har­rel­son, mean­while, brings A-grade crazy to the name­less Colonel, whether rant­ing — Kurtz-like — about the hu­man con­di­tion, or gaz­ing down at his troops like a freshly shorn Im­mor­tan Joe.

Start­ing out as a mes­sianic crack­pot, he’s lent both depth and pathos by an in­ge­nious plot pivot that hints at how this se­ries may one day brush snouts with the He­ston­verse.

Apes ini­ti­ate Steve Zahn also shines in a pleas­antly comic turn as for­mer zoo res­i­dent ‘Bad Ape’. In a goofy body-warmer and bob­ble- hat combo, Zahn brings a lev­ity that has been painfully lack­ing from the se­ries un­til now, and speaks to a far more var­ied emo­tional land­scape this time around.

In­stead of dou­bling-down on bleak­ness with the apes’ abu­sive cap­tiv­ity, Reeves opts in­stead for the lighter tone of a POW ca­per

(‘The Great Esc-ape’ is an­other slo­gan likely daubed on a wall some­where). The fu­ture isn’t all grim­ness and geno­cide — it seems there’s also room for prat­falls, poo-fling­ing, and acts of sur­pris­ing ten­der­ness.

That this is a more in­tro­spec­tive jour­ney than ad­ver­tised will frus­trate those ex­pect­ing to see an army of irate bono­bos rain death upon their hu­man op­pres­sors. That’s not to say there isn’t ex­cite­ment, nor that the fi­nale lacks fire and brim­stone, but the war of the ti­tle is pri­mar­ily one of the soul. Even Cae­sar’s re­venge, when it comes, is told with poignant re­straint. The con­flict here is one of moral­ity, iden­tity and the bound­aries of hu­man­ity; all the guns and na­palm, while present, are sec­ondary to War’s pur­pose. A mis­nomer, cer­tainly, but Ex­is­ten­tial Ru­mi­na­tions Of The Planet Of The Apes wouldn’t sell nearly as much pop­corn.


VER­DICT Apes to­gether strong. And, thanks to an evoca­tive story and the most re­al­is­tic an­thro­poids you’ll find out­side a zoo, this third Apes is the strong­est yet.

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