War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes is the best film I have seen in 2017.

In many ways, it is perfect.

The story is sensible, makes sense and can appeal to adults as well as a younger audience; the script is literary but not too wordy; the acting is uniformly excellent; it is moving and exciting in equal measure; the music is appropriate without being overwhelming; the CGI is clever and not too obvious; the blatant product placement is thankfully absent; the scenery is breath-taking; the battle scenes are exciting and not too long; the ending is sad yet uplifting; the baddies get their comeuppance; it is not weighed down by ‘stars’ or celebrities; it is not too long; there is a mute young girl (played by Amiah Miller) who is rescued by the apes and plays her role of vulnerable innocence to perfection; the hero (Caesar, played by Andy Serkis) is heroic but not without flaws; there is a minor character (Bad Ape, played by Steve Zahn) who injects a small but welcome element of humour; the direction (by Matt Reeves) is pacy and assured. In short; what’s not to like?

I expected to have trouble suspending my disbelief (medical science gone wrong, talking apes fighting pitched battles; give me strength) but in fact I had no trouble at all – you’ll believe an ape can cry. I had seen previous films in the franchise and found them silly and tiresome and couldn’t get past my innate scepticism; this film was anything but and I sat through hooked, drawn fully into this fully realised world.

The film draws heavily on, and is influenced by, others. The main two, for me, were The Outlaw Josey Wales and most obviously, Apocalypse Now. In Josey Wales, Clint Eastwood (the Director and star in the title role) draws together a motley band of waifs and strays and embarks on a vengeful journey through a ravaged Civil War landscape in search of those who betrayed him and killed his family. Eventually, after many adventures, in which they are chased as well as being the chasers, they reach a promised land where they can settle and be left in peace.

In Francis Coppola’s brilliant Vietnam war-set retelling of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – Apocalypse Now – a US Army Captain (Martin Sheen) is sent to ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’ a US Colonel (Marlon Brando) who has gone rogue and set up a proxy kingdom in the jungles of a war-ravaged Cambodia. Sheen is accompanied by a motley crew as he makes his way up river to Kurtz’s hide-out. Kurtz is hugely overweight (not part of the story but this is how Brando was then), bald, mad, power-crazed and has his own warped ideas of how to win the war. In War for the Planet of the Apes, the Kurtz character is played by Woody Harrelson as a rogue Colonel (why is it always a Colonel?), shaven-headed and topless (but not fat) in army fatigues and wearing shades, who has created an army base which he is reinforcing with captured apes who are forced to re-build the crumbling fortifications. The homage to this film is literally spelled out (for those who don’t get it) by graffiti on the walls of a tunnel which runs beneath the army camp – ‘Ape-pocalypse Now’ – it reads).

All the apes are excellent but Serkis is extraordinary. Presumably all of the ape bodies, hands, feet, hair, facial features, etc are rendered in CGI and the actors perform in front of green screens; however, the eyes have it. All the ape troubles, triumphs and tragedies are viewed in Serkis’ bloodshot tired, searching eyes. They don’t give Oscars for his kind of performance, but they ought to; it is well-deserved.

It would take too long to explain the genesis of the story (there is a short synopsis of the previous films – Dawn of the PotA and Rise of the PotA at the beginning; forget Charlton Heston) but it isn’t necessary: strip away the apeness and CGI, mad Colonels and medical science gone wrong and it is a simple story and one of the oldest plots in history – a journey (by a small group drawn together by troubles) through darkness into light, where good triumphs over evil after a series of obstacles are overcome. It is Josey Wales twinned with Apocalypse Now and it is no exaggeration to say that those two superb and iconic films are equalled by this one.





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