War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

2017 #98
Matt Reeves | 140 mins | cinema (3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & American Sign Language | 12A / PG-13

War for the Planet of the Apes

Previously on Planet of the Apes… the rise of intelligence in apes resulted in them establishing a new ape society in the woods. After humanity was mostly wiped out by disease, the actions of a few apes, still angry about their treatment at the hands of humans, led to the dawn of war began between peaceful apes and vengeful humans.

Now, ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) has been in hiding for years. After a human sortie into the forest leads to them finally discovering his location, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) executes a stealth assault on the apes’ home. Incensed, Caesar and a small band of his most dedicated followers set out to find the humans’ stronghold and bring the Colonel to justice, hopefully ending the war in the process.

When it was announced that the follow-up to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was going to be titled War for the Planet of the Apes, it only made sense. The previous film ended with that war beginning, for one thing. More than that, the clear point of this prequel trilogy has been to show how the world as we know it ended up on the path to becoming the one Charlton Heston encountered in the original Planet of the Apes — and you just knew mankind wasn’t going to give up without a fight, making some kind of war all but inevitable. However, as it turns out, the title is almost a misnomer.

Cheeky monkeys

This is not a war movie in the sense of it being two hours of epic battles. There’s a set-to at the start (one which reminded me of the opening of Saving Private Ryan without in any meaningful way being a rip off of it), and a big battle forms the backdrop to the climax, but in between the film is something else. Or, rather, somethings else: there are multiple genres one could cite as an influence on the film as it transitions betweens phases of its story. There’s a bit of the “men apes on a mission” thing going on, with an edge of the Western in there, before it turns into a POW camp movie of sorts, with a healthy dose of Apocalypse Now for good measure. If that makes it sound restless, it’s not; it’s just not beholden to picking one set of tropes and sticking to them — it goes where its story dictates. That works.

Similarly, the film is a tonal masterclass: as befits the subject matter of its title, there is grim and serious stuff here, but it’s laced with splashes of comedy, heartfelt emotion, moral debate, and social commentary, the vast majority of which is handled with understatement rather than Hollywood grandstanding. And if there’s one throughline to connect all this, it’s the characters. In a summer blockbuster?! I know, right? But that’s been a marker of quality throughout this new Apes trilogy: a willingness to be thoughtful and considered, not just trade on shoot-outs and explosions.

Military might

Andy Serkis is once again phenomenal in the lead role. Caesar’s story this time is almost Shakespearean, the film’s biggest war being his internal battle over the right course to take, and what his desired actions mean for his soul. He was always the sensible, reasonable, merciful ape, but events provoke another side in him — is he just like his old enemy Koba after all? Through him the film considers themes like justice vs revenge, the needs of the few vs the needs of the many, the rights and wrongs of actions in wartime. Caesar may be the hero, but he’s certainly not perfect.

On the flip side, Woody Harrelson is a clear-cut villain — a heartless bastard; a thoroughly nasty piece of work… or so it seems, because, when he eventually gets a chance to state his case, to explain where he’s coming from, the things he’s seen and decisions he’s had to make, you can see understand his point of view. That doesn’t mean we necessarily agree (it’s pretty clear that, like Kurtz, he’s gone off the reservation), but it does make him a character rather than a cardboard cutout. As the film manoeuvres its way around these two characters, their differences and similarities, It’s abundantly clear that this is a much more complex film than your usual blockbuster fare of “always-right good guys shoot at thoroughly-evil bad guys”.

Talk with the animals... or not

Serkis and Harrelson are the stand outs, but there are brilliant performances elsewhere. Steve Zahn plays a character called Bad Ape, who’s both funny and touching, while Amiah Miller is a human girl the apes pick up on their travels, and the way she conveys a genuine emotional connection with the apes helps to sell them as real characters. Not that the CGI work of Weta needs much help there — it’s one again phenomenal, so real you don’t even think about it anymore. They had to break new ground for Dawn, for the first time taking performance capture outside of specially-designed studios (aka The Volume) and onto location filming. Perhaps that innovation explains why some of Matt Reeves’ direction last time was a little stilted and TV-ish. More years of development have removed those constraints, however, and his work on War is marvellously cinematic.

It’s also a true trilogy capper. They may choose to continue the story after this point (we’re still a couple of thousand years away from Charlton Heston showing up), but if they don’t then this will happily serve as an ending. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that, although each film of this prequel trilogy has been quite distinct (pleasingly so, I’d say), there’s still a sense of this one rounding off things that were set in motion back in the first movie. There are also Easter egg-like nods and hints towards the original film; and to some its sequels too, apparently (I’ve not seen those yet so I’ll have to take other people’s word for it).

They don't wanna be like you-ooh-ooh

War for the Planet of the Apes is possibly not the movie we were expecting, but that’s no bad thing. I’m not sure how well it’ll go down with the crowd that pushes things like Transformers 5 to over $500m (and counting), but it has to be applauded for sneaking emotionally and thematically considered material into a huge-budget summer blockbuster. It’s not just great science fiction, it’s great drama. It’s also cemented these Apes prequels as arguably the greatest movie trilogy of the decade.

5 out of 5

War for the Planet of the Apes is in cinemas most places now.

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100 Favourites II — The Next 30

Last week, my ranking of 100 favourite movies I’ve seen in the last decade began with 40 films that ranged from screwball comedies to spectacle-fuelled blockbusters, from gritty crime thrillers to artistic animations, from gory horrors to melodramatic epics…

This week, my typically eclectic selection continues with the next 30 picks.

#60
The Nice Guys

8th from 2016 (previously 11th)
Convoluted criminality is rendered hilarious in Shane Black’s spiritual sequel to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. More…
#59
Arrival

7th from 2016 (previously 6th)
An intelligent, adult drama about humanity, which also happens to be a science-fiction mystery. More…
#58
His Girl Friday

6th from 2010 (previously 7th)
Sharp, fast, intelligent, hilariously funny — they don’t make films like this anymore. More…
#57
The Story of Film: An Odyssey

8th from 2015 (previously 21st)
Mark Cousins’ history of the movies wasn’t to all tastes, but I found all 15 hours to be fascinating and enlightening. More…
#56
The Night of the Hunter

7th from 2013 (previously 7th)
Charles Laughton’s only film as director is a masterpiece of dread, fear, cruelty, and near-peerless beauty. More…
#55
M

5th from 2010 (previously unranked)
Fritz Lang’s proto-noir serial killer procedural still has the power to thrill and chill. More…
#54
Inglourious Basterds

3rd from 2009 (previously 1st)
Killin’ Natzis, Tarantino style. History re-rendered in terms of pure cinema. More…
#53
In Bruges

2nd from 2009 (previously 2nd)
“There’s never been a classic movie made in Bruges, until now.” More…
#52
Byzantium

7th from 2015 (previously 5th)
These vampires aren’t glamorous or sparkly, but damaged and discarded in a seedy seaside town of tarnished charms. More…
#51
How to Train Your Dragon

8th from 2011 (previously unranked)
Glorious animation, with soaring flight sequences and an emotive connection to its characters, both human and dragon. More…
#50
Dredd

6th from 2013 (previously 6th)
Sharp, efficient sci-fi action with impressive gun battles, dry humour, and Karl Urban nailing the title character. More…
#49
Steve Jobs

6th from 2016 (previously 3rd)
A gripping character drama with a surprising corporate thriller vibe, magnificently written by Aaron Sorkin. More…
#48
Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro

7th from 2011 (previously 4th)
Described by no less than Steven Spielberg as “one of the greatest adventure movies of all time”. More…
#47
The Shining

8th from 2014 (previously 3rd)
Eliciting dread and almost-primal fear, it’s the most excruciatingly and exquisitely unsettling film I’ve ever seen. More…
#46
X-Men: Days of Future Past

7th from 2014 (previously 9th)
Surprisingly deep characterisation rubs shoulders with witty and inventive action in this all-eras X-Men team-up. More…
#45
Predestination

5th from 2016 (previously 5th)
Thought-provoking science-fiction in this time travel mystery that tackles issues of gender and identity — how timely. More…
#44
The Revenant

4th from 2016 (previously 4th)
Starring Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, this gruelling survival Western is primarily told with visuals and so becomes a work of pure cinema. More…
#43
Oldboy

6th from 2014 (previously 7th)
Mixing a straightforward revenge thriller with weird, almost surrealistic touches, Oldboy is kinda crazy, kinda disturbed, but kinda brilliant because of it. More…
#42
Hanna

5th from 2013 (previously 5th)
A teen coming-of-age movie… with hard-hitting action sequences, surreal imagery, long single takes, beautiful cinematography, and a pulsating Chemical Brothers soundtrack. More…
#41
Stardust

5th from 2008 (previously 4th)
A truly magical film, packed with wit, action, delicious villains, a star-studded cast, a stirring score, and genuinely special effects. More…
#40
North by Northwest

4th from 2013 (previously 4th)
Almost everything you could want from a movie: pure tension, action, humour; a mystery, a thriller; a dash of romance. Unadulterated entertainment. More…
#39
The Three Musketeers

6th from 2011 (previously unranked)
Sword fights galore in this riot of swashbuckling fun, with a lightness of touch that makes for pure entertainment. More…
#38
The Grand Budapest Hotel

6th from 2015 (previously 10th)
A film full of delights, from the hilarious performances, to the clever dialogue, to the inventive design, to the controlled camerawork. More…
#37
Mad Max 2

5th from 2015 (previously 2nd)
Post-apocalyptic Australian Western that climaxes with a balls-to-the-wall multi-vehicle chase, one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed. More…
#36
Sicario

3rd from 2016 (previously 1st)
A dark and morally questionable thriller, incredibly shot by Roger Deakins, artfully helmed by perhaps the best director currently working, Denis Villeneuve. More…
#35
Rise of the Planet of the Apes

3rd from 2012 (previously 7th)
An intelligent science-inspired drama that just happens to link up to a big studio sci-fi/action series. More…
#34
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

5th from 2014 (previously 4th)
The sequel to the prequel to the Planet of the Apes presents a fully-realised ape society and a story of interspecies relations that reflects our own times. More…
#33
Django Unchained

3rd from 2013 (previously 2nd)
Tarantino’s Spaghetti Western homage is an entertaining, occasionally thought-provoking, rewarding, and thoroughly cinematic experience. More…
#32
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
2nd from 2013 (previously 3rd)
One of the most underrated films of the ’00s, Andrew Dominik’s historically accurate movie is a considered, immersive, complex, intimate, epic Western. More…
#31
Mad Max: Fury Road

4th from 2015 (previously 6th)
Action filmmaking elevated to a genuine art form, but alongside the mind-boggling stunts there’s a surprising richness of theme and character. More…

Next Sunday: the penultimate 20.

White God (2014)

aka Fehér Isten

2016 #11
Kornél Mundruczó | 121 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hungary, Germany & Sweden / Hungarian | 15 / R

Thirteen-year-old Lili (Zsófia Psotta) and her dog Hagen are forced to temporarily live with her father, Dániel (Sándor Zsótér), because her mother is going on holiday with her new partner. Dániel doesn’t like Hagen anyway, but when the dog’s behaviour causes problems for him, he sets Hagen loose on the streets. Already angry with her father and his attitude, a devastated Lili sets out to find her beloved dog, who is busy discovering the darker side of mankind and our treatment of animals.

If White God sounds a bit bleak then, well, it can be. It’s a European arthouse drama, really, and so you get the attendant choices with pacing and storytelling style, as well as a commitment to realism — until the third act, at least, which I’ll come to in a moment. Hagen ends up in some very dark places, and co-writer/director Kornél Mundruczó doesn’t shy away from showing their brutality. Conversely, real dogs were used throughout filming, and the film doesn’t have a Hollywood budget for prosthetics or CGI, so we’re spared some of the imagery a less fiscally inhibited director might’ve forced upon us. Mundruczó insisted that all the dogs in the film were real animals trained to perform (and none were harmed, of course), which must’ve been limiting at times, but makes everything we see that much more effective.

For all the toughness of the journey, where it leads is triumphant; not entirely so, I must add, but enough. The film’s third act can pithily be described as Rise of the Planet of the Dogs: having seen the abuses of humans, an impounded Hagen leads a canine uprising that seeks to… well, they don’t speak (they’re dogs, remember, and this isn’t Disney), so who knows what their precise aims are? “Revenge” would be too cruel, but they definitely seeking some retribution. The film’s sadness doesn’t disappear (hence why not entirely triumphant), but some wrongs are righted.

The comparison to certain films about apes goes further than just the theme of an animal revolution, however: just like the last two Apes movies, White God drags a little when it leaves the animals for the humans. I’d love to see an edit which just followed Hagen’s story — you’d certainly keep all the film’s interesting and memorable bits, and lose very little. Not that the human bits are bad, per se, but they don’t go anywhere particularly new. Ooh, a teenager striking out, going to clubs (gasp!), and then realising that her parent isn’t such a monster after all (twist!) The performances are good — young Psotta is very naturalistic, and Zsótér makes you understand the humanity of someone who could’ve been a straightforward villain — but the dogs are where the real interest is at.

Some will find the middle of the film a slog, I suspect, both emotionally and with its occasionally lagging pace. However, the bookends seek to justify it. There’s catharsis in the finale, as described, but even better is the film’s opening. It has to be seen to be properly understood, but it’s operatically scored, shot, and edited, and involves hundreds (literally) of trained dogs en masse. It’s spectacular, unforgettable moviemaking; perhaps even one of the best openings to a film ever. And I don’t say that just as a “dog person”.

White God could benefit from tightening in some places, and less focus on the by-the-motions human subplots wouldn’t be a bad thing, but as a kind of magical realist drama, almost an arthouse take on certain Hollywood blockbuster narratives, it’s a compelling and sometimes awe-inspiring movie.

4 out of 5

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

2014 #121
Matt Reeves | 130 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English & American Sign Language | 12 / PG-13

Dawn of the Planet of the ApesRise of the Planet of the Apes surprised a lot of people by being an intelligent, understated blockbuster — that’s not something Hollywood makes any more, and certainly not when they’re rebooting a recognisable IP. It was born of some writers having a good idea, which just so happened to work when told within the Apes universe. The danger with a sequel, of course, is that it’s designed from the off to be a big tentpole franchise movie. Fear not, dear reader, because Dawn has taken its predecessor’s values to heart, offering another slice of character-driven science-fiction drama with lashings of big-budget action as a side dish.

The film begins ten years on from the end of Rise, with the apes having established a life in the forests near San Francisco — they hunt deer in packs with spears; they have a kind of ‘ape city’; there’s a sort of school of youngsters; leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) has a wife and a couple of kids; etc. Humanity, meanwhile, has fared less well: the virus from the end of the last film has all but wiped them out, and the apes haven’t seen or heard from Man in years. That is until a party of survivors arrive, searching for a hydroelectric dam they intend to fire up. When one of them shoots an ape in fear, the stage is set for all kinds of conflict…

From here, Dawn continues on in various interesting directions. This isn’t the kind of blockbuster that sets out a simple premise then follows it up with half a dozen action sequences, possibly with a twist at the end. No, this is the story of Ape and Man learning to interact and coexist — or, rather, failing to. Political machinations abound — and that’s just in the Ape camp. Indeed, we spend most of our time with the apes, CGI having now evolved to such a point where it can truly create Characters, not just, y’know, Jar Jar Binks.

The Big (Ape) SocietyA heady mix of solid writing from Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, peerless motion-captured performances from the likes of Serkis and Toby Kebbell, and first-rate CG magic from Weta, brings us a set of characters who are compelling and believable. Here is a society trying to define what it wants to be, battling old prejudices in the hope of a peaceful, secure, happy future. If you want to draw analogies to almost any real-world political situation, I’m sure you could.

What’s perhaps most fascinating is that it’s the apes’ future we’re most invested in. It’s not that they’re the Good Guys and humans are the Bad Guys — there are heroes and villains on both sides, just another aspect of the film’s relative maturity — but that we care more about what happens to ape society than human.

In fairness, that’s in part because the human side of the equation is a bit of a damp squib. Jason Clarke is an adequate but blank lead; as his new love and son-from-before, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee have an aimless subplot; Gary Oldman is an excellent ‘villain’, in restrained “trying to do the best for his people” mode rather than the all-out-loon he’s best known for, but is sadly underused. Some people have found this to be a major problem with the film; honestly, I don’t. The apes are the focus and that’s fine. It would work better with even less of humanity, in fact — as I said, the wife-and-son subplot adds nothing, and the screentime could be better spent elsewhere.

Ape assaultLest you get the wrong impression, the film isn’t all talk. For various spoiler-y reasons, the fragile relationship between Man and Ape breaks down, and the apes stage an attack on humanity. Here we get perhaps one of the best siege action sequences I can think of, with mankind holed up in a half-constructed skyscraper that sits conveniently at the end of a long street for the apes to charge down. Reeves’ direction is virtuosic here, crafting an epic and exciting sequence even when most of the film’s major players are busy elsewhere. And it’s not even the climax.

In some respects that’s a bold move — the action is story-led rather than scale-led, meaning the big memorable action sequence is at the end of act two instead of the climax. The downside is that someone seems to have realised this, forcing the film to climax with a punch-out atop a crumbling skyscraper — so far, so superhero blockbuster. I can understand the impulse to make the finale a big action-based number, and at least they didn’t go for some kind of rehash-with-bells-on from what worked earlier in the film, but — unlike that earlier sequence — it doesn’t offer anything terribly fresh. Still, in a film that’s more about its story than the originality of its action beats, perhaps we can let that slide.

Said story has been labelled predictable by some, which is a tad harsh. Of course the apes and humans are going to come into conflict — that’s kind of the point. We all know where this ends up, after all. It’s the journey that’s interesting, and Reeves and co make it so. This is a major turning point in ape-human relations, and therefore in the Apes saga. That makes it a story worth telling, even if the import is undersold occasionally Caesarthanks to some surprisingly small-scale narrative choices (the whole thing with the dam doesn’t feel nearly as vital as it should) and Reeves’ direction sometimes being a little straightforward and almost TV-ish. I know I’ve said I hate when people use that as a derogatory comment nowadays, but some repeated locations and shot choices make the film feel cheaper than it was.

It’s difficult to say whether Dawn is a better movie than Rise (and I’ve seen people argue both sides unequivocally) because they’re actually quite different styles of film. That, surely, is a good thing — as I said before, this is now a franchise driven by the story it wants to tell, rather than a need to repeat old glories or offer a certain quota of adrenaline. Sit me down in front of Rise again and I might change my mind, but, with its intelligent depiction of an ape society, constant tension, and one absolutely first-class battle sequence, I’m tempted to declare Dawn the victor.

5 out of 5

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes placed 4th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.