The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


War for the Planet of the Apes

The modern Planet of the Apes series is an example of franchise filmmaking at its very finest. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of Apes, and now War for the Planet of the Apes all deliver adventure and excitement wrapped in a big-picture story that's admirably ambitious. This new chapter brings the saga to a presumptive close, exploring a timely theme about the perils of depersonalizing one's enemy. Matt Reeves' film engages the mind and the senses in equal measure, resulting in top notch entertainment.

The story finds Caesar (played by Andy Serkis in a magnificent motion-capture performance) trying to locate a safe new home for his fellow apes. Word comes that a ruthless Army colonel (Woody Harrelson) is on the hunt for them, determined to stop the Simian Flu from spreading any more by wiping apes from existence. After his brutal invasion of their camp, Caesar decides to track down the Colonel and exact some revenge. Meanwhile, the other apes are rounded up by the Colonel's soldiers into a work camp. When Caesar is also captured, he realizes that he'll need to declare war from inside enemy territory.

War for the Planet of the Apes has a showstopping scene right in the middle that makes us reevaluate what we're seeing. For the first half, we are asked to view the Colonel as a hateful psycho. Then he and Caesar have a face-off, after which we realize that, while he does have hatred in his heart, there's a strangely understandable reason behind it. In that moment, Caesar recognizes that he has more in common with his enemy than he suspected. They still need to do battle, yet the ape takes up arms with a greater knowledge of the forces driving the man against whom he must lead the charge.

Setting much of the movie in a work camp allows the themes to be explored from an extra angle. The Colonel and his men fear the apes. They don't view the simians as intelligent beings who love their families and value the opportunity to live a peaceful life. They simply see a threat. In this day and age, where various forms of prejudice exist all around us, it's easy to get at what the film is saying: Lumping entire groups of individuals together under the umbrella of a negative label only leads to bad things that cause harm. Because apes fulfill one side of the equation, it is easier to reflect upon our own tendency to do that than if all the characters had been human.

Having a strong hero and an equally strong villain allows the idea to hum. Serkis is outstanding as Caesar, giving the character a personality that is 90% intensity, 10% compassion. Over the course of three films, the actor has convincingly shaped Caesar into a fully-developed figure we empathize with deeply. Harrelson, meanwhile, gives one of the best performances of his career and that's saying a lot. He makes the no-nonsense Colonel utterly fearsome, while simultaneously hinting at the wounded quality inside that has led him to his extremist views. Watching the two spar in various ways, physical and mental, is a thrill.

War for the Planet of the Apes has some phenomenal action sequences, particularly at the end. They don't just constitute meaningless mayhem; they carry weight and consequence. A new character, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), provides some nice comic relief, while also representing the helpless, scared souls who are put in harm's way when rigid ideological beliefs are taken to the next level. Michael Seresin's cinematography, meanwhile, is gorgeous and evocative, creating just the right atmosphere for the plot to unfold in.

The quality level of the special effects and action scenes is enough to make the Apes movies popular. I suspect, however, that their reputation will only grow over time. The political themes embedded in them are incisive. Right now, we can see how they apply to the world today. In the years ahead, people may well view them as an important cinematic encapsulation of what was happening politically in the relatively early part of the 21st century. Bold and gripping, War for the Planet of the Apes provides a satisfying conclusion to Caesar's journey.

( 1/2 out of four)

War for the Planet of the Apes is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images.. The running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes.

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