This isn’t going to be a formal review. I’m still processing what I saw, so this is more of a stream of consciousness kind of blog post.
Last night I finally got to see War for the Planet of the Apes. I’m a month late to this party. I’m still geeking out a bit, not so much about the movie itself, but as part of this larger trilogy and the legacy of the entire The Planet of the Apes saga. You see, I grew up on the originals as they aired them on TV. They were distinct, unlike anything else out there. Until Star Wars came along, they were the most ambitious science fiction films ever made (though there seems to be some argument about this with the Kubrick fans concerning 2001: A Space Odyssey). I cut my teeth with these movies, and they live side by side in my memories with the likes of Star Wars and the Universal monsters. I even saw the live action series and the animated series, all in reruns, but I did see them. When Tim Burton released his version, I was excited beyond words until I finally saw the film. After that, I kind of wanted to beat him within an inch of his life with his own shoes. That’s where I really started paying attention to the Burton Rule, where I support his original works, but I’m leery of anything previously existing that he twists into his own vision. And understandably, when it came time for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I was quite literally dragged to the theater to see it by my girlfriend at the time. I can’t express how angry I was that this movie even existed. Before the movie started, I was preparing myself to dump her because I just knew I was going to storm out early in a barely controlled rage. I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I couldn’t have been more overjoyed and stunned. Reboots are lazy, and they come across as pitiful money grabs, soulless and pointless beyond mere nostalgia. That’s the general rule, anyway. Sometimes… it works out for the right reasons. Not often, but when it does, it can be something truly special when the people involved actually know what they’re doing and care about it.
Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes were incredible. I walked into the sequel with none of the reservations I had for the first one. These films were more thought-provoking than the originals, visually stunning, and near-perfect examples of how to honor the past without stripmining it while pushing the legacy forward into new territory. War for the Planet of the Apes was to be the grand finale, because my generation and those after were taught to think in trilogies. That’s where I am today. I’ve now completed the trilogy. I’m told the studio wants to keep going, and every instinct I have says they should stop while they’re ahead. At the same time, if they can keep up the quality, I’d kind of like to have the story of the Lawgiver if they ever get around to that.
As I get older, I find I appreciate dystopia less and less with every passing year. At the same time, it’s hard to argue when the story in play is so very well done. It’s even harder to argue when what you see on screen might actually be a better future than what we’re living right now. Scary thought, no? But that’s the power of Caesar. Andy Serkis gives a performance in these films that puts Caesar on the level of some of the greatest film heroes of all time. Smart, charismatic, heartfelt… sometimes you even forget Caesar is an ape because he’s far more human than the rest of us. Other times you think that’s an incredible advantage not to be like us. It probably says a great deal more about what I think of my fellow humans these days, but whatever. If people want to fire back at me, that’s fine. Our infantile species needs to grow up, get over the butthurt of every conceivable little thing, and learn how to start working together for the common good. And yes, I realize how ironic that sounds from a guy who can’t handle a bad remake of a good film. All I can say is my rants aren’t causing people to die in the streets, and precisely no one has their finger on the nuclear button because of little ol’ me. If my own neighborhood is anything to judge by, the apes deserve to take over.
*sigh* Forgive me, this is me before the first cup of coffee has properly marinated the wetware. The point is, this new trilogy of Apes films has earned a special place in this fanboy’s heart. War isn’t the best of the three. It isn’t even the second best. But it’s still a really good movie. There are things about it that I didn’t like, such as the fact that the first 25 minutes or so is so dark that it might as well have been shot in a coal mine, but that’s realism. Forests are dark places at night. The biggest thing I’m still processing is how misleading the title is. Or maybe it isn’t. You see, I walked into this expecting the full-on war that ended humanity. This was more about the war in Caesar’s heart than anything else, and that’s a lot more powerful. The legacy of Koba casts a huge shadow over this movie. Caesar’s in a dark place here, and he’s got some demons to fight. Amazingly enough, he’s still somewhat heroic about how he does it, even when he doesn’t want to be. What’s even more impressive to me is how loyal his followers are. He’s earned their respect, and they are willing to do absolutely anything to help him or to protect them — for the right reasons. Perhaps as a necessary failing, Caesar seems ever surprised by this too. When he finally does harness the forces at his command, it’s to save the lot of them. His personal vendetta is always a solo mission, independent of the quest to protect his people. The world should be so lucky to have leadership of that caliber these days. At the very least, the world is so lucky to have a film like this, so nuanced at every level. This, and the trilogy as a whole, is the closest thing to being actual literature a blockbuster summer movie can get.
The nostalgic geek in me loves the callbacks to the originals. Toss in names like Cornelius and Nova… yeah, I’m grinning. Look, I know these prequels do not lead into the originals as much as I love them too. Yes, I saw Charleton Heston’s cameo in the first one when it was announced his ship was lost. I also remember seeing the controls on his ship that clearly told me what year it was, and it wasn’t in the current generation. It doesn’t matter. This is both a prequel and a reboot, a requel, if you will. And since there are a lot of years that have to happen between this and the original films, the names Cornelius and Nova are clearly going to be names that get passed on.
Nova interests me in this film. This little girl is affected by a twist on the virus that brought the apes to power. Her, and many humans like her, have lost the ability to speak. Apparently they’ve not lost the ability to communicate, as she demonstrates by picking up the apes’ sign language. She also offers a counterpoint in this film that’s truly needed. You see, Nova befriends the apes. She becomes a part of their group, effectively so. She is the message in this film that tells us that racial prejudices, hatreds, and fears are learned. If we don’t teach such things to the next generation, such will fall away. It’s a theme being wrestled with on both sides of the human / ape divide, understandably so, but as with the best science fiction, it’s a message that is being demonstrated to us, the audience. We’re not being beaten over the head with it. We’re simply presented that this is an option. The other option, of course, is we can be like the soldiers in this film. You get why they’re there, but at the same time… we know who the protagonists are in this movie.
As much as maybe I shouldn’t, I have to praise Bad Ape. A movie this dark and tense needs comic relief, but only if such can be used properly. You need the highs and lows to counter one another. You need to the light and the dark to provide some contrast for any of it to mean anything. In an ultra-serious dystopian drama, levity is good. Bad Ape is an incredible character. He’s just the right level of silly without going overboard, and his character’s timing just works for me.
I’ve been listening to the film’s score for a while. That’s a claim I can’t make of most films these days. Film scores are put together completely differently now than they were any earlier point in history, and the last 20 years or so have really torpedoed anything resembling creativity on most fronts. Sadly, that’s by design. Michael Giacchino, on the other hand, is proving to me that he is the worthy successor to the great composers of my generation. It’s one thing for him to say that he’s inspired by the likes of John Williams. It’s another thing to prove it, which he’s done. His score here does some interesting callback to Jerry Goldsmith’s original 1968 score. No pun intended, he apes Goldsmith’s style perfectly while keeping his own musical identity intact. It’s especially noticeable in the first half hour of the film. Really sets the stage and gets that old school nostalgia flowing. And damned if I’m not hearing some influences in here from John Barry and James Horner as well. You know what else I’m hearing? An actual memorable motif that’s repeated throughout and woven into the narrative. A recognizable, sensory-inducing, emotionally heavy, hummable motif! That’s actually where I’m hearing the John Barry influence. It sounds like the sort of thing I’d hear in his James Bond scores, or on The Black Hole. It works brilliantly here.
These aren’t movies I’m going to watch time and again like Star Wars or Indiana Jones. They’re not that kind of movies. This trilogy of Apes films are the sort of thing I will bust out and marathon on special occasions, sort of like The Godfather trilogy. They’re the kind of movies I will praise because they will never lose their power. They’re the kinds of movies that are actually better to think about in hindsight than they are while they’re being watched. I don’t know how that works, but that’s how the best books out there work too. They linger for the right reasons. They’re the kinds of movies I will hold up to people and say, “This is how you reboot a story.” This sort of thing is why I’m so very picky and have very little want to waste my time and money on generic popcorn level crap, especially if it’s trying to cash in on my memories of something far better. When you are treated to great cinema, the sorts of movies that require you to turn off your brains lest you melt them simply stop appealing over time. This raises the bar even further for me. Now that I know it can be done, I’ll keep demanding it. I won’t expect it, but I’ll vote with my dollar, as ever. It’s the only message the Hollywood machine will ever get. This trilogy stands even better as a whole than it does as separate films, as distinct as each of those films are. They are, in my estimation, modern classics. Like Caesar says, “Apes together strong.” He’s right. He’s absolutely right.