You know your summer blockbuster is padded with more than a few layers of profound when, at different points in the film, you empathize with both sides of the battlefield.
But such is the new ‘Planet of the Apes’ franchise, a definite swerve from the usual glut of popcorn movies, served en masse this time of year; as features overstuffed with mindless special effects and action blare throughout the cineplex (sorry ‘Transformers’, but if the shape-shifting metal shoe fits..), this is a beauty that – even though it too is energetic and visually brilliant – brains are definitely required.
And despite two spot-on lead-up films, the third and final of the ‘Apes’ prequels, ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’, is the best of the series. A story with influences ranging from ‘Apocalypse Now’ to ‘The Great Escape’ and ‘Schindler’s List’, ‘War’ is a movie that hits you with something new – an artful gem that finds a way to pay tribute to its original source, a near-fifty-year old ‘B’ movie classic, yet firmly pronounces itself as smart and stylish enough to be an Oscar contender come March. And yes, I’m serious.
The story picks up almost immediately after the events of ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’. Caesar (Andy Serkis), leading his colony of apes after the death of the power-hungry Koba, is attempting to carve out a peaceful existence deep in the California Redwood forest. Unfortunately, a team of human soldiers arrives – led by Woody Harrelson’s bald, wild-eyed madman, known only as the Colonel. The battalion forces the apes from their home and, after a particularly gruesome encounter, leaves Caesar with a personal vendetta to settle with the Colonel.
What follows next feels almost like a western; Caesar and a small band of apes – along with a mute child (Amiah Miller) and an eccentric zoo primate (Steve Zahn) – track the Colonel over snow capped mountains to a prison camp where the final battle will be waged. (The fact that the Colonel is building a ‘wall’ should speak volumes to our current real-life global chaos, yes?) Throughout it all, director Matt Reeves, who co-wrote the script, exhibits unbelievable patience, leaning heavily on Michael Giacchinos mesmerizing score, refusing to take the leash off and let this beast run until it’s good and ready.
It’s heavy stuff, to be sure….a lot more to mentally lift than your usual summer fare. Oh, and ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ is a dark one too. But not all big budget epics have to emerge as ‘feel good’; I’d rather they BE good, period. And good this most certainly is.