Friday, August 25, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes: World of Wonder

This review contains spoilers.

The beginning of War for the Planet of the Apes, in which U.S. soldiers attack apes on horseback on a wooded hill, has the breadth and specific detail, the terror and excitement and pathos, of a classic battle sequence by D.W. Griffith. Like the opening scene of the last movie in the series, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), where apes on horses hunt down a herd of deer, it’s sumptuously shot and grippingly edited, and its bold visual conception is thrilling. (The cinematographer, Michael Seresin, and the editors, William Hoy and Stan Salfas, all worked on Dawn as well.) Matt Reeves, who helmed both these movies, directed a variety of TV episodes before making his first picture, Cloverfield, nine years ago; at fifty-one, he’s too old to be called the best young filmmaker in America, but since War is only his fourth picture it’s tempting to think of him that way. (After Cloverfield he made Let Me In, the remake of the Swedish child-vampire film Let the Right One In.) He’s a master storyteller and an ace director of actors, and unlike most of our filmmakers, who think only in terms of images and effects, Reeves thinks in terms of complete sequences. That’s not to say that he can’t dream up beautiful, memorable images as well and frame them magnificently: he has a remarkably sophisticated sense for the tension between foreground and background, periphery and center. And he imbues his sequences with so much feeling that you walk away from both his Apes movies shaken up.

The original Planet of the Apes, directed with uncharacteristic style by Franklin Schaffner and released in 1968, was an ingenious satire of human folly with apes standing in for humans and treating the captured actual humans in their camps like slaves. It would be a stretch to call the movie Swiftian, unless you want to call it comic-book Swift, but it was immensely enjoyable, and the irony at the conclusion – the realization of the long-absent astronaut played by Charlton Heston that the planet of the apes he was trying to escape from so that he could return to earth was in fact earth – is justly famous. (I recently reconnected with the friend I saw the movie with when it came out, and both of us recalled the knockout effect of the ending, which was both creepy and funny, on a pair of movie-loving teenagers.) The last scene was like the conclusion of a particularly effective Twilight Zone episode; I’ve never read the source material, Pierre Boulle’s novel, but it was hardly a surprise to see Rod Serling’s name on the screenplay alongside Michael Wilson’s.

Schaffner’s movie was a big enough hit to spawn several inferior sequels, and Tim Burton made a remake in 2001 with Mark Wahlberg in the Heston part. The recent reboot of the franchise, a trilogy that began in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, is a prequel that ends presumably a few decades before the original takes place. In Rise, a young Bay Area scientist, Will Rodman (James Franco, in a performance of surpassing sweetness), raises a young ape named Caesar (Andy Serkis) who inherited from his mother the effects of a drug Will developed to combat Alzheimer’s and has been testing on apes. The drug has so enhanced Caesar’s intelligence that Will is able to teach him to speak. When he is taken from Will and incarcerated in an experimental facility with other apes, Caesar administers the drug to them too and helps some of them to escape into Muir Woods. But the drug is virus-based, and in the final reel of Rise it begins to infect human beings. By the beginning of Dawn, set ten years later, most of humanity has been wiped out by “simian flu”; a small community of survivors in San Francisco have sent a reconnaissance team to investigate the possibility of harnessing the dam on the far side of the Golden Gate Bridge for electricity. The mission leads them into the woods, where they encounter the simian community under Caesar’s leadership. After some initial tension, the better impulses of the humans and the better impulses of the apes permit them to form a tentative, then a genuine, alliance.

Andy Serkis as Caesar with James Franco as Will in Rise of the Planet of the Apes

There were considerable pleasures in Rise (which was directed by Rupert Wyatt), most of them in the scenes between Franco and Serkis, that genius actor who has made a career of motion-capture performances: he was Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies, and King Kong in Peter Jackson’s remake, and he plays Caesar in all three of the Apes pictures. But nothing in this first part of the trilogy prepared you for the storybook richness and emotional fullness of the series once Reeves took over the directing chores. In Dawn Reeves works from a screenplay credited to Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who wrote Rise, and Mark Bomback; my guess is that Bomback rewrote Jaffa and Silver’s version, since he and Reeves are the only screenwriters listed on War, and the two films fit together seamlessly. (That’s only a guess, though, and I don’t wish to minimize Jaffa and Silver’s contribution to the series.) The second film ends in an all-out war between the apes and the human survivors, despite Caesar’s efforts and those of his human friend, the engineer Malcolm (Jason Clarke), to forestall it; War is set two years later, and the war is still going on. A renegade colonel (Woody Harrelson) and his band of soldiers invade the woods, slaughtering some of the apes they find there, including Caesar’s mate Cornelia and his older son, Blue Eyes, and enslaving the others. Caesar sets out to find them, in the company of three of his close friends – Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) and two characters who have been in the story since Rise, Rocket (Terry Notary) and the gentle-hearted orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), both of whom Caesar rescued from the zoo in the first movie.

The theme of the original Planet of the Apes was our innate racial intolerance and our inability to learn from our mistakes, but the trilogy and especially Dawn and War are humanistic narratives that use the equation at the root of all the Apes movies, apes = humans, to explore our capacity for both humane and inhumane behavior. In the scheme of these films, whenever a character, human or ape, gives in to the impulses of fury, cruelty, revenge or power-mongering – whether it’s Koba (Toby Kebbell), the man-hating ape who attempts to assassinate Caesar in Dawn, or the Colonel, whose soldiers, bellowing for war at the top of their lungs, sound like animals, not men, or Red Donkey (Ty Olsson), the ape the Colonel’s men have put in the position of a foreman over the others – we’re primed to see their actions as animalistic. And any act of love or compassion, whether initiated by human or ape, we perceive as a sign of humanity. Half of the main characters in Dawn are human beings, but there aren’t many left in War; still, Reeves and Bomback continue to develop this idea, though in different ways. When the Colonel kills Cornelia and Blue Eyes, Caesar’s lust for revenge almost dehumanizes him; when he’s captured by the Colonel’s troops and tortured, he’s haunted by images of Koba, whose hatred of men – fostered by the torture he endured in the zoo experiments – he slowly comes to understand even as he realizes that he’s begun to act like Koba.

Jason Clarke as Malcolm in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

That double comprehension, of course, is his redemption, although – just as his memories of Will Rodman and the kindness of Malcolm’s partner, a one-time CDC doctor named Ellie (Keri Russell), whose medicine saves Cornelia’s life, stirred his old fellow feelings toward humans – throughout War his anger against them is caught up short by his interaction with them. There’s a complicated episode where, en route to tracking down the Colonel, he kills a man outside his cabin to prevent him from shooting Luca, Rocket and Maurice and then finds a child inside, a mute girl named Nova (Amiah Miller), and realizes that her father’s aggression against the apes came out of the instinct to protect her. In an amazing moment, Maurice hands her a poppet her father evidently fashioned for her and we see his tenderness toward her in the orangutan’s extraordinarily expressive face. Caesar urges his friends to leave the little girl behind, but Maurice refuses; he sees her looking with wonder at the corpse of her father in the yard and comprehends that they’re responsible for her now. Later, while Rocket and the others hatch a plot to liberate the apes, whom the Colonel is using for slave labor (to build a wall to protect his troops from the real army, which is launching an offensive against these rogue soldiers), Nova slips into the Colonel’s fort and gives Caesar food and water, and she plays a key role in the defeat of the Colonel. The movie is ambiguous about how the degree of her consciousness in doing so (it’s also fascinatingly ambiguous about some of Caesar’s actions), but that doesn’t matter in the symbolic structure of the movie. The child doubles for Caesar’s dead son, and her father, whom Caesar killed, doubles for his dead wife. Reeves gives Nova the most moving moment in the picture, when Luca is mortally wounded and she slips the flower he placed behind her ear, as a sign of affection, into his fur before he expires. (This exquisite image, overflowing with emotion, marked the second time in the movie when I thought of D.W. Griffith.)

In the original Planet of the Apes, none of the humans enslaved by the apes except for Heston’s Commander Taylor can speak; in War, Reeves and Bomback devise a reason. The humans who survived the so-called simian flu absorbed the virus in their blood but their bodies were able to combat its effects. Now, however, it’s mutated, and humans infected by the latest version lose their speech. The Colonel is a fanatic who believes he is fighting a holy war to save the human race from degenerating into “dumb apes”; as they get closer to his fort Caesar and his friends discover the bodies of soldiers whose deaths, it turns out, the Colonel has ordered because they’ve become mute and thus “tainted.” He’s even killed his own son – out of mercy, he believes, and as a sacrifice. He thinks his actions are impersonal rather than cruel, and his delusions are an indication of his craziness. But when he captures Caesar, he treats him with respect for his intelligence (if not mercy); Caesar, after all, can speak. (So can some of the other apes, but they rarely choose to, communicating among themselves with a combination of gesture and inhuman sounds – their movement is stylized, balletic, and it’s one of the incidental beauties of both this movie and Dawn.) War introduces a comic character, an ape who calls himself Bad Ape (played by Steve Zahn in a performance that’s both hilarious and affecting). Bad Ape somehow survived the experimental facility Caesar escaped from and has been holing up in a one-time ski lodge. (Frosted with snow, a picture of dilapidated grandeur, this set is the best example of the invention of production designer James Chinlund.) This ape, who can speak because of the serum but has never learned to sign like the apes in Muir Wood, doubles for Nova, who can sign, somewhat crudely, but can’t speak. It’s Bad Ape who guides Caesar and his friends to the Colonel’s fort.

Woody Harrelson as the Colonel in War for the Planet of the Apes

Woody Harrelson is almost as frightening as the Colonel as he was as the sociopath in Scott Cooper’s 2013 Out of the Furnace, though he’s more like a combination of Brando’s Kurtz and Duvall’s Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. (Reeves uses a cave graffito to underscore the connection with Coppola’s movie, which is unnecessary and a tonal intrusion; so is Harrelson’s choice to play part of his big scene with Caesar for comedy. These are, perhaps, the only flaws in the movie, aside from Caesar’s reunion with his little boy, Cornelius, when Michael Giaccino’s otherwise fine score briefly deteriorates into sentimentality.) And I assume that we’re meant to link the Colonel’s nutty fixation on building that wall to the building of the bridge in The Bridge on the River Kwai, based on another novel by Pierre Boulle. The holding pens that the apes are being kept in reminded me of the fort in Irvin Kershner’s 1976 The Return of a Man Called Horse where the white traders are holding the Yellow Hand tribe. That reference may be accidental, but when I saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes I thought that Reeves established the hierarchy and the lifestyle of the ape community in the same way Kershner defined the life of the Yellow Hands, with its balance of familial beauty and necessary brutality, and that he produced the same initial effect: when it’s invaded by outsiders, we experience the assault first from the community’s point of view. The most profound movie allusion in War is to Mizoguchi’s great Sansho the Bailiff, where the protagonist Zushio, sold into slavery as a child, loses his humanity when he agrees to whip other slaves at the command of his master – like Red Donkey. Sansho the Bailiff turns on Zushio’s rediscovery of his humanity; Red Donkey is a supporting character, but Reeves and Bomback give him a turn-around moment, too, and it’s a rousing one.

There may not be a scene in War that’s quite as magical as the one in Dawn where Malcolm gets the power to work and the city of San Francisco is suddenly flooded with light; a CD player switches on and we hear The Band’s ineffable recording of “The Weight,” with its mysterious – and mysteriously moving – Old Testament references and its mixed tones of sorrow and hopefulness, its message of endurance, and Ellie sheds a quiet tear as the civilization they lost and are struggling to rebuild comes racing back to her. But this final movie in the trilogy is as potent as its predecessor, as stunning to look at, and as emotionally satisfying. It’s saturated with emotion. When Luca dies, he seems to turn to granite, and Caesar’s demise at the end has the mythic feel of Joel McCrea’s sinking to the bottom of the screen at the end of Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country. This scene showcases equally Andy Serkis and Karin Konoval, whose plaintive softness as Maurice is called on more, perhaps, in this movie than in either of the previous two. As for Serkis, I think that it’s generally acknowledged by now that the elements of motion capture should not mute his achievement both as an actor and a mime in these movies (and in his work with Peter Jackson). Watching the range and power of feeling he calls up here by necessarily unorthodox means, I found myself recalling John Lone’s portrayal of the prehistoric character brought back to life after being preserved in Arctic ice in Fred Schepisi’s 1984 Iceman. When he passes out of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the movie, and the trilogy, is over. It has to be: Serkis is its heart and soul.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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