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Hail Caesar! - ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’

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Latest franchise installment offers compelling closure to trilogy

 

One of the accepted realities of the current Hollywood landscape is the idea of diminishing returns regarding sequels. That is, for most large blockbuster offerings, we know that A) a sequel (or sequels) is almost certainly forthcoming, and B) each subsequent film will almost certainly be worse. That’s just how it is – but not always.

The latest incarnation of the “Planet of the Apes” movies – 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” are the previous two – is “War for the Planet of the Apes,” a film that not only lives up to the excellence of its immediate predecessor, but in many ways surpasses it.

While there may yet be more films in the franchise, these three definitely make a trilogy in their own right – a trilogy that writer/director Matthew Reeves brings to a powerful, poignant and extremely effective conclusion.

In the aftermath of the horrible conflict that concluded the previous film, Caesar (Andy Serkis, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) has taken those apes that remain into hiding in the forest. Despite his best efforts, humankind continues to view the apes as enemies and pursues them as such.

One particularly dogged opponent is a military officer known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson, “Wilson”), whose attacks have led to losses both plentiful and very personal for the apes in general and Caesar in particular … and Caesar will have his revenge.

He sends his people on a journey toward a possible safe haven where they might live in peace, then undertakes his own mission of vengeance against the Colonel. With only his trusted advisor Maurice (Karin Konoval, “Where’s My Baby?”) and loyal warriors Rocket (Terry Notary, “Kong: Skull Island”) and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite, “Warcraft: The Beginning”) by his side, he sets off to track down and destroy his enemy.

Along the way, some unexpected companions join the group – a mute young human girl (Amiah Miller, “Lights Out”) and a lonely, neurotic former zoo ape (Steve Zahn, “Captain Fantastic”) – as Caesar makes his way toward a confrontation that might prove to be far more important – and far more dangerous – than he ever could have anticipated.

The battles go back and forth, but only one side can win the war.

Maybe the most remarkable thing about “War for the Planet of the Apes” is its ability to continue raising the stakes while still staying grounded in the reality that the filmmakers have created. This film about superintelligent apes battling against a twisted faction of humanity also happens to be one of the best war movies we’ve seen in the 21st century.

Oh, and doing so primarily with computer-generated characters driven by motion-capture artists.

From a breathtaking opening battle sequence to a heartbreaking final scene, “War for the Planet of the Apes” maintains a consistent level of quality so high as to border on the shocking. The narrative is compelling, telling its own story while also bringing the overarching “Apes” tale to a well-earned and satisfying conclusion. The action sequences have the appropriate scale – grand, but never overwrought or overwhelming. There are a handful of subtle nods to the source material that engage without jarring. Even the comic relief is just right (thanks largely to some good work from Zahn).

Frankly, the performances are a huge part of what makes this movie more than just a standard CGI extravaganza. Over the past 15 years, we’ve watched Andy Serkis essentially invent a new kind of cinematic performance; he’s the Olivier of mo-cap acting – and this movie might be his greatest work. He turns Caesar into a living, breathing, feeling creature; it’s remarkable to see. Konoval and Adamthwaite are both excellent as well, while Notary might be the heir apparent to the mo-cap crown.

Harrelson is great as the megalomaniacal Colonel; he’s always had a knack for crazy that we’ve only rarely gotten to really see. He cuts a fine Kurtz-ian figure here, bombastic and broad in just the right way. And Miller manages some remarkable acting of her own, playing an almost entirely non-verbal role with engaging aplomb.

Granted, “War for the Planet of the Apes” isn’t always subtle – the “Apocalypse Now” stuff gets a touch heavy-handed at times and some of the themes are pretty overt, for instance – but that’s OK. It doesn’t have to be subtle to be smart. And make no mistake – this is probably the smartest blockbuster of the summer. Not the cleverest – that honor likely lands on a Marvel offering – but in terms of smarts, “War” stands apart.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” firmly cements this franchise’s status as the smartest, most thoughtful blockbuster action series going. And while the series may continue, the book can be officially closed on this trilogy. We can only hope that these films are held up as prime examples of summer blockbusters that can be as thought-provoking as they are action-packed.

Hail Caesar.

[5 out of 5]

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