It’s just hu­man na­ture to cheer for these Apes

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - JUSTIN CHANG Los An­ge­les Times

A few thou­sand years from now, alien an­thro­pol­o­gists sift­ing through the rem­nants of our once-proud civ­i­liza­tion may sur­vey Hol­ly­wood’s 21st cen­tury simian-themed block­busters with some con­fu­sion. Based on their ti­tles, shouldn’t “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014) come be­fore “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011)?

A quick re­cap may be in or­der. “Rise,” the first in a series of pre­quels to the orig­i­nal “Apes” movies, chron­i­cled the out­break of a simian virus that birthed a new line of su­per­in­tel­li­gent apes and ini­ti­ated the fall of man. “Dawn” caught up with the ac­tion a decade later, amid es­ca­lat­ing ten­sions be­tween the apes and their fast-dwin­dling Homo sapi­ens coun­ter­parts.

All this is help­fully sum­ma­rized at the be­gin­ning of “War for the Planet of the Apes,” whose ti­tle may be cause for still fur­ther be­wil­der­ment. By the of­ten bloody and bom­bas­tic stan­dards of the genre, this masterful third chap­ter is not much of a war movie at all.

View­ers ex­pect­ing an epic clash be­tween two equally vi­cious pri­mate fac­tions may be sur­prised — though not, I imag­ine, dis­ap­pointed — by the eerie calm that hangs over this pic­ture, and by the grace and re­straint with which the writer-di­rec­tor Matt Reeves guides the story from its ex­plo­sive be­gin­ning to its ele­giac fi­nale.

Per­haps that last part won’t be so sur­pris­ing. Reeves, after all, was the film­maker who gave “Dawn” its un­usual grav­ity and emo­tional grandeur, veer­ing away from Ru­pert Wy­att’s high-spir­ited “Rise” in pur­suit of some­thing al­to­gether darker and more de­spair­ing.

“War,” co-writ­ten by Reeves and Mark Bom­back, com­pletes this pro­gres­sion with breath­tak­ing for­mal beauty and tonal con­trol. It is hard to over­state just how sin­gu­lar

this pic­ture feels in its se­ri­ous­ness of pur­pose and in its cu­mu­la­tive power to en­thrall and as­ton­ish.

Of course, se­ri­ous­ness is noth­ing new on the block­buster land­scape, and these three re­cent “Apes” movies are hardly the first to traf­fic in grim al­le­gories of op­pres­sion and xeno­pho­bia. The cru­cial dif­fer­ence here is that the series’ vi­sion seems to have evolved in sync with vis­ual-ef­fects tech­nol­ogy, rather than be­ing eclipsed by it. It’s the rare Hol­ly­wood re­boot that re­ally does feel like the prod­uct of a higher in­tel­li­gence.

The sharpest mind here be­longs, as ever, to Cae­sar, the grave and elo­quent chim­panzee leader played by Andy Serkis in an­other seam­less meld­ing of dig­i­tal ex­per­tise and ac­torly soul. Hav­ing de­feated the vi­cious rebel bonobo known as Koba in “Dawn,” Cae­sar now pre­sides over an ad­vanced Bay Area ape com­mu­nity that, de­spite its peace-lov­ing ways, is re­peat­edly tar­geted by an en­croach­ing hu­man army.

Even Cae­sar’s seem­ingly in­fi­nite pa­tience wears thin after a fresh round of ca­su­al­ties, the cru­elest of which is ex­acted by the army’s ma­ni­a­cal leader, known only as the Colonel (a ter­rific Woody Har­rel­son). Spurred on by vi­sions of Koba’s blood­thirsty ghost, Cae­sar puts aside his paci­fist im­pulses and sets out to take down the Colonel, ac­com­pa­nied by such side­kicks as his right-hand chimp Rocket (Terry No­tary), his go­rilla deputy Luca (Michael Adamth­waite) and, best of all, Mau­rice (Karin Kono­val), still the loveli­est orangutan to walk the earth.

The jour­ney to the Colonel’s com­pound is paved with stun­ning backdrops, namely a series of snowy moun­tain vis­tas that, as shot by cin­e­matog­ra­pher Michael Seresin on gor­geous 65-mil­lime­ter film, give the movie a bleak­ness and des­o­la­tion all its own. Nat­u­rally, there are har­row­ing com­pli­ca­tions and un­ex­pected meet­ings in store, and it is a mea­sure of the un­der­ly­ing com­pas­sion of “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the op­ti­mism be­neath its apoc­a­lyp­tic gloom, that these tense en­coun­ters tend to give rise to new friend­ships more of­ten than not.

One en­emy turned com­rade is a wily zoo refugee, named Bad Ape by his former cap­tors; he’s won­der­fully played by Steve Zahn, bring­ing some wel­come lev­ity to the pro­ceed­ings while en­rich­ing our sense of what has be­come of the world’s broader ape pop­u­la­tion. The other new­comer is a coura­geous young hu­man girl named Nova (Amiah Miller), who has been stricken mute by the virus.

Nova is not alone. Even as the apes’ lan­guage skills con­tinue to evolve — most of them com­mu­ni­cate via (help­fully sub­ti­tled) sign lan­guage, though sev­eral, like Cae­sar, have be­come pro­fi­cient English speak­ers — many of the hu­mans who sur­vived the virus’ ini­tial on­slaught are now los­ing the gift of speech. It is in many ways a fate worse than death, and it ex­plains the fa­nat­i­cal ex­trem­ism of the Colonel and his fol­low­ers.

Un­der these cir­cum­stances, it’s fit­ting that si­lence should be­come such a pow­er­ful force in “War for the Planet of the Apes,” whose stately, never-draggy 142-minute run­ning time fea­tures sev­eral glo­ri­ously talk-free pas­sages. Reeves, an in­stinc­tively vis­ual sto­ry­teller, likes to hold his char­ac­ters in ex­tended close-up, and he is un­der­stand­ably ea­ger to show­case his ape ensem­ble, whose ex­pres­sive twitches and ges­tures at­test to the lat­est ad­vances in per­for­mance-cap­ture tech­nol­ogy.

Serkis’ work as Cae­sar, much like his turn as Gol­lum in “The Lord of the Rings” movies, by now ex­ists in a realm be­yond praise or even mea­sur­able achieve­ment; you feel this char­ac­ter’s good­ness, but also his roil­ing in­ter­nal con­flict, in his ev­ery dig­i­tal atom. Most of the spo­ken di­a­logue, by con­trast, falls to Har­rel­son’s Colonel, a wor­thy new ad­ver­sary who at one point gets a de­ranged, ni­hilis­tic mono­logue that fur­ther un­der­scores his re­sem­blance to Colonel Kurtz in “Apoca­lypse Now.”

That’s just one of a few clas­sics that Reeves has cited as overt in­flu­ences, in­clud­ing the Clint East­wood western “The Out­law Josey Wales,” bi­b­li­cal epics like “The Ten Com­mand­ments,” and Sec­ond World War-era clas­sics “The Great Es­cape” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” Mer­ci­fully, “War for the Planet of the Apes” feels like an in­spired syn­the­sis rather than a slav­ish im­i­ta­tion.

We root for the apes, of course — how could we not? — and Reeves does not shy away from height­en­ing our sense of alien­ation from our own stupid, pride­ful and em­pa­thy-de­fi­cient species. Hu­man­ity here is a largely face­less pa­rade of white-uni­formed soldiers, as blank and men­ac­ing as a squad of Im­pe­rial Stormtroop­ers.

The sub­ver­sion of our sym­pa­thies is brac­ing, and in­deed the spec­ta­cle of mankind’s im­pend­ing de­struc­tion is the sort of vi­car­i­ous plea­sure that the movies have al­ways been well equipped to pro­vide.

But the moral here, which is suf­fi­ciently nu­anced that it has taken three movies to come into fo­cus, isn’t that mankind de­serves ex­tinc­tion. It’s that we are obliged to pro­tect and fight for hu­man­ity wher­ever we hap­pen to find it, and that the very ques­tion of one’s hu­man­ity is less a mat­ter of in­ter­species dif­fer­ence than a con­di­tion of the heart.


Karin Kono­val, left, and Amiah Miller in "War for the Planet of the Apes," a fan­tas­tic story told with masterful skill.

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