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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

War for the Planet of the Apes movie review: empathy for the ape

War for the Planet of the Apes green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
A triumph of science fiction storytelling: a sweeping tale of mythological scope told with astonishing FX wizardry that brings emotion and intelligence to nonhuman people.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love this series
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

A quick recap. First there was 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in which sad scientist James Franco accidentally created a genius ape in Caesar, and his colleague mad scientists accidentally created and released a supervirus that killed most of humanity. Then there was 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, set 10 years later, in which the uneasy detente between the growing new civilization of smart apes and a small cluster of surviving humans was shattered by mistrust and unhealable pain on both sides. (The terrible and best forgotten 2001 Planet of the Apes, directed by Tim Burton and starring Mark Wahlberg has no connection whatsoever to this series. Thank goodness.)

The empathy machine of movies works to turns us against our own species…

And now we have War for the Planet of the Apes, set a further five years on, in which we make the rather startling discovery that these movies have been telling the epic of Caesar, a sweeping tale of mythological scope, the creation story of apekindtweet and its first leader, a chimpanzee Moses. That’s a lot of weight to hang on a summer popcorn blockbuster, but War succeeds at that beautifully, with big emotion driving a thoroughly captivating tale.tweet That this series has been telling so imposing a story seems fairly obvious in retrospect, yet it never felt that way until somewhere around the middle of this movie, when I came to the even more startling realization that almost every significant character here is nonhuman. Looking back from a perch at the very moving ending of War, I see now that the humans in the story have been winnowed away until we root entirely for apes here in War (that they have a small human child hanger-on is almost incidental), and that the villains, the ones we root against, are human. (That those bad guys have a few turncoat ape helpers is also incidental.)

“Ape not kill ape” is a tough philosophy to follow when turncoat apes fight alongside bad humans.

“Ape not kill ape” is a tough philosophy to follow when turncoat apes fight alongside bad humans.tweet

Just on a level of pure cinematic storytelling, War for the Planet of the Apes is a marvel, then: the empathy machine of movies works to turns us against our own species, and engages us wholly with multiple other species: chimps, gorillas, and orangutans. This is partly a function of the smart screenwriting — by director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) and Mark Bomback (Insurgent, The Wolverine), both returning from Dawn — but far more one of astonishing CGI wizardry, which has advanced dramatically even from only three years ago. The nuance of feeling and intelligence that crosses Caesar’s face, a combination of a motion-captured performance by the phenomenal Andy Serkis (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Avengers: Age of Ultron) and sublime FX work, is unconditionally realistic; that Caesar seems to have Serkis’s own soulful, doleful eyes doesn’t hurt, either. We never have any doubt that Caesar is an authentic person.tweet The illusion is so complete that we never even stop to wonder at it: Caesar just is in the same way that any human onscreen always is.

Caesar the smart chimp seems to have actor Andy Serkis’s own soulful, doleful eyes…

The film’s story revolves around Caesar’s ape community coming under attack from a desperate human army led by a truly chilling Woody Harrelson (The Edge of Seventeen, Now You See Me 2), whose base Caesar sets out to infiltrate while he sends his people away as refugees to a place of hoped-for safety. Nothing goes as planned and even greater human-fueled disaster strikes the apes, but the plot, as fine and as gripping as it is, feels secondary in consequence to how simply engrossing all those nonhuman primate characters are. This is particularly true of the beautiful mo-cap and voice performance by Steve Zahn (The Good Dinosaur, Knights of Badassdom) that imbues Bad Ape, a solitary chimp zoo survivor whom Caesar encounters, with grand pathos and sweet eager humor: he is a creature — a person — who has been driven a little mad by loneliness and is now overenthusiastic in his enjoyment of new company. And he is a sheer delight.

What does inhumane mean in a world where apes protect human children as humans kill ape children?

What does inhumane mean in a world where apes protect human children as humans kill ape children?tweet

(I cannot help but take all of this as an unwitting smack at Hollywood’s typical narrowmindedness: If we can make an audience cheer for and feel for nonhumans, we can sure as hell do the same onscreen far more often for anyone who isn’t white and male. I wish I didn’t have to look past the fact that almost every character here in this movie is male, and almost every human character is white [and every mo-capped actor playing a nonhuman seems to be white, too]. War could have done better than this.)

I cannot recall another movie that wasn’t a Pixar cartoon that so convincingly put nonhumans at its center. That alone would make War for the Planet of the Apes a triumph of science fiction storytelling on the big screen. But its unspoken yet expansive philosophy about the personhood of nonhuman beings and its unexpectedly optimistic view of a nonhuman future for planet Earth — so very different from previous tellings of this story — add to that triumph as well. There are hints of room for a second trilogy, one that could recall the 1968 movie and its 70s sequels, except on, we can foresee, a less dystopian trajectory; there are characters here whose names are echoes from the original films, and could become new versions of the same in a future continuation of the story of Caesar’s people. And in a triumph for the Hollywood blockbuster, the prospect of more movies in this series does not fill me with dread. I’d really love to see them, in fact.

See also:
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (review)
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes movie review: people get ready

Click here for my ranking of this and 2017’s other theatrical releases.

green light 5 stars

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War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) | directed by Matt Reeves
US/Can release: Jul 14 2017
UK/Ire release: Jul 11 2017

MPAA: rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate violence, injury detail)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Owen1120

    Another annoyance about the white maleness of the characters is that Maurice, a male orangutan (the orange one), is played by Karin Konoval. Why not just give Maurice a female name if the actress is female?

  • Aaron Jones

    Looking forward to seeing it. I’ve loved this series so far. Again, your thoughtful reviews are a breath of fresh air.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Given the role actress Kim Hunter’s character Zira played in the first three original PotA movies, this twist is indeed very annoying. Yet more proof of the old cliché about how the more things change…

  • Allen W

    They might have wanted the distinctive cheek pads, which are unique to dominant male orangs.

  • Can’t wait to see it. One observation I make, is of Woody Harrelson, who, still, after all these years, I have a hard time buying in any serious role. Friggin Cheers ruined him for me. I just see a doofus every time I see him. His name doesn’t help.
    Plus, he seems a bit old to play a bad ass war general(or whatever he is?) but I know that means nothing for male actors. They can be badass forever, while women get +/-3 years or so.

  • Owen1120

    I see your point, but 99 percent of people wouldn’t know that fact. There’s already a synthesized drug to cure Alzheimer’s and make apes geniuses, so why not a female ape with cheek pads?

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Not really, considering the setting. Harrelson is 55. So his character would have been 40 at the time of “Rise”, probably a major or lieutenant colonel, assuming he was already in the military. Once the initial die-offs stopped, with no careers or retirements to worry about, it’s not unreasonable to think that promotion through the ranks as we know it would basically stop. So he’d have probably been a colonel for a decade by the time of “War”.
    If you’re concerned about physicality, the role is not very physical. Harrelson’s character rappels from a cliff in one scene (tough for a 55 year old, but not unrealistic), but that’s about it. He never goes toe-to-toe with an ape or anything like that. Mostly he just looks imposing.

  • Bluejay

    Loved the film, love this review. I was also impressed and gratified by the extensive use of ASL – which, as far as I can tell as an interested novice, is employed pretty accurately. And if Michael Giacchino isn’t the next John Williams yet, he sure seems to be on his way.

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