Stun­ning clash of civil­i­sa­tions

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

Iwatched War for the Planet of the Apes two days af­ter I saw Christo­pher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The two films have a lot in com­mon. If that sounds as likely as a chimp writ­ing Ham­let, please bear with me. Both di­rec­tors take an un­con­ven­tional ap­proach to con­ven­tional movie gen­res: war for Nolan, sci-fi for Matt Reeves. They do it from op­po­site poles: Dunkirk, as I wrote last week, is no­table for what it omits from a World War II film, par­tic­u­larly the Ger­mans.

War for the Planet of the Apes in­cludes more ref­er­ences to other films, and to hu­man his­tory, than I’ve seen in a while, and it works. It turns this 50-year-old pri­mate con­flict first imag­ined by French nov­el­ist Pierre Boulle into some­thing thought­ful and com­pas­sion­ate, as well as thrilling. It is as rel­e­vant to­day as was the postCuban Mis­sile Cri­sis orig­i­nal with Charl­ton He­ston and Roddy McDow­ell.

The nods are overt at times, such as the hand-painted sign on a wall that de­clares Ape Apoc­a­lypse Now. Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola’s 1979 Viet­nam War mas­ter­piece Apoc­a­lypse Now was the first movie that came to mind as I watched. Others in­cluded John Sturges’s pris­oner-of-war clas­sic The Great Es­cape (1963), Ro­man Polan­ski’s War­saw Ghetto drama The Pi­anist (2002), Martin Scors­ese’s The Last Temp­ta­tion of Christ (1988) and Ce­cil B. DeMille’s The Ten Com­mand­ments (1956), star­ring He­ston as Moses.

James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) also has an in­flu­ence, as it does in any of the re­cent movies that en­cour­age au­di­ences to hope for the (on­screen) elim­i­na­tion of their own species.

As it hap­pens this is the di­rec­tor’s plan. The next day I read an in­ter­view with Reeves, who con­tin­ues from the pre­vi­ous in­stal­ment in this re­boot tril­ogy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The first, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was di­rected by Ru­pert Wy­att. (M)

Reeves said he and scriptwriter Mark Bom­back “de­cided to watch a mil­lion movies” to pre­pare for mak­ing this $US150 mil­lion one. Not a bad job, is it? The stu­dio, 20th Cen­tury Fox, set them up in a screen­ing room for this binge, which in­cluded the nine Apes films made to date, a few of the movies I’ve men­tioned and some I didn’t think of at the time but which make sense in ret­ro­spect, such as David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai and Wil­liam Wyler’s Ben-Hur (also star­ring He­ston).

Clearly they had more in mind than some biff be­tween hu­mans and apes, and it shows through­out. The hu­man (and bib­li­cal) events and peo­ple we are re­minded of in­clude the Ex­o­dus, Julius Cae­sar, slav­ery, world wars, con­cen­tra­tion camps, the Holo­caust, the Pales­tinian con­flict, the tra­duc­ing of the planet, Don­ald Trump’s Mex­i­can wall and, most of all, Je­sus. There are scourg­ings and cru­ci­fix­ions.

So there is a lot to think about here. There are also 140 min­utes of in­tense con­flict be­tween hu­mans and apes. My 12-year co-viewer was ab­sorbed by that, as was I.

The ac­tion opens 15 years af­ter the end of the pre­vi­ous movie. The apes, led by Cae­sar (Andy Serkis), are se­cluded in a moun­tain­ous for­est, fugi­tives from the hu­man army. The brave, fe­ro­cious, hu­man-hat­ing Koba, killed by Cae­sar last time, ap­pears only in dreams and hal­lu­ci­na­tions, but his spec­tral pres­ence is piv­otal.

The com­pas­sion­ate Orang­utan Mau­rice (Karin Kono­val) is at Cae­sar’s side, wise coun­sel to the ape-of-ac­tion leader. “Now you sound like Koba,’’ he warns at one point. New Zealand cin­e­matog­ra­pher Michael Seresin beau­ti­fully cap­tures this refuge and its in­hab­i­tants.

First, though, we see a group of sol­diers mov­ing through the for­est. One has Mon­key Killer etched on his hel­met. There’s a telling mo­ment where an­other sol­dier crouches down and a go­rilla’s hand clamps on his shoul­der. The sol­dier is not at risk. It’s the hand of a col­lab­o­ra­tor. Some apes have joined the hu­mans on the prom­ise they will be spared when the apoc­a­lypse comes. They carry the am­mu­ni­tion and other equip­ment and are called don­keys. That de­risory des­ig­na­tion is painted on their backs.

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