comscore Technology makes for a beastly ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
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Technology makes for a beastly ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’

  • 20TH CENTURY FOX

    Caesar, center, the leader of an advanced group of simians, returns in “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

“War for the Planet of the Apes”

*** 1/2

(PG-13, 2:20)

Gripping, visually assured and working far above its summer-sequel paygrade, “War for the Planet of the Apes” treats a harsh storyline with a solemnity designed to hoist the tale of Caesar, simian revolutionary — the Moses of apes — into the realm of the biblical.

Not everything in director and co-screenwriter Matt Reeves’ movie works. Some of its grimmest passages, depicting life under concentration camp quarantine amid various, escalating acts of human-on-simian brutality, throw the story’s tonal balance out of whack. As the chief human antagonist, Woody Harrelson portrays an obsessive special-forces colonel in a way treading a very fine line between “reliable” and “predictable.”

Better to get these caveats out of the way, because there’s an awful lot right with this film.

Other franchises make more money, if only by overstaying their welcome, like a run-on sentence desperately seeking a period. But the “Planet of the Apes” prequels, begun in 2011 with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and followed in 2014 by “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” are crafty enough, both digitally and emotionally, to make you root for Homo sapiens’ extinction. I wouldn’t blame you if you do. There are days in our real world when handing it all over to revolutionaries with hearts, brains and nerve seems like a pretty good bet.

At the end of “Rise,” mighty Caesar provoked the wrath of the surviving humans (those who avoided the fatal simian flu). He knows he’s in for a lifetime of miserable armed conflict. This means “War,” which finds the ape tribe camped out along the land formerly known as the California-Oregon state line. Human soldiers under the command of Harrelson’s Col. McCullough wage an attack, and when Caesar and McCullough lock eyes after the colonel murders Caesar’s wife, their mutually entwined fates are set.

The colonel’s motto is simple: “We must abandon our humanity to save humanity.” If that isn’t bomb-the-village-in-order-to-save-it or “Apocalypse Now” enough for you, “War” goes whole-hog with the “Apocalypse Now” riffs, from Harrelson’s Kurtzian (or Brando- esque) bald head to a shot of graffiti in an underground tunnel: “Ape-pocalypse Now.”

Caesar and company encounter an unlikely ally in the chimpanzee known as Bad Ape, a domesticated zoo refugee living on his own. Reluctantly he leads Caesar to the slablike quarantine facility. It’s a prison camp run by McCullough, where enslaved, emaciated and nearly broken apes work day after day to erect a makeshift barrier. With both eyes on Trump, one of the chimpanzees asks the obvious: “Why do they need a wall?”

Less controversially, though with a fair amount of straight-faced cheek, from there “War” folds in elements of “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “The Great Escape” and other prisoners-of-war sagas, though at heart director Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback treat Caesar as a tight-lipped Western hero in the Clint Eastwood vein. He’s frequently shown on horseback, and motion-capture actor Andy Serkis’ voice is reduced here to an Ape With No Name rasp. He warily offers protection to an orphaned human girl (Amiah Miller) adopted by Caesar’s confidant, Maurice.

The trek through high country, amid snow and cold, qualifies “War” as the second franchise fantasy this year to don the Western cloak. While the “Shane”-indebted Wolverine picture “Logan” was pure gold to many, I prefer this movie; its many Hollywood influences aren’t worn lightly, exactly, but they’re put to better use.

Let’s talk about the motion-capture technology. In the “Planet of the Apes” universe, the mo-cap is so terrifically persuasive by now, so subtly detailed in every windblown close-up of fur waving like wheat, “War” allows you to simply believe from the first scene.

Serkis’ Caesar is the opposite of a stunt; it’s a real performance. He suffers perpetually in this outing yet never becomes a tiresome martyr.

The ringer is Steve Zahn, whose vocal intonations and squirrelly comic timing as Bad Ape (rocking a cold-weather Timberland vest) cannot be praised highly enough.

The movie might sag in its dour midsection, but once the “Great Escape” part of the narrative kicks in, it’s gratifying action indeed.

Don’t bring young kids. The “Apes” mythology, a mainstay of American movies for 49 years now, always had a sadistic or at least a masochistic streak. It’s easy to get an audience on the apes’ side if you make life and death difficult enough for the rooting-interest characters. It’s harder to develop a satisfying succession of events, and complications, en route to the nomadic tribe’s promised land that lies at the end of the trail. Reeves has done so. And composer Michael Giacchino’s musical score, one of his best, clicks right from the beginning, with a wittily reorchestrated rendition of the familiar 20th Century Fox theme song. The sound evokes something familiar but something new, as well. At its best, so does the movie.

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