Thursday, July 27, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves 2017)

Chimp thrills

(Warning! Narrative twists and overall plot discussed in detail.)

First the good stuff: Andy Serkis' Caesar (last seen gazing thoughtfully at his kneeling followers in the previous Ape installment) returns as the franchise's digitally enhanced protagonist, all ferocious scowl and simian gait and flaring nostrils. All the apes look great, from the moonfaced Maurice (Karin Konoval playing a Bornean orangutan) to the intimidating yet ultimately gentle Luca (Michael Adamthwaite playing a lowland gorilla) to the hilariously craven Bad Ape (Steve Zahn as a common chimpanzee); they look different they act different, the human performers perfectly choreographed and translated into simian through motion capture. Gets to the point that you forget they are apes, and follow their story as naturally and effortlessly as if you'd been following a band of humans on a desperate mission.
The ape community lives in a series of mist-shrouded caverns approached by brief tunnel past a raging waterfall (was Reeves thinking of the bandit lair in Seven Samurai?)--in stark contrast to the military compound, a harsh steel-and-concrete complex modeled partly on Auschwitz partly on Ernst Stavro Blofeld's Swiss Alps hideaway. Concerning set and production design I have little to complain about. 

And that's all the nice I am able to say. Beyond that the apes' wanderings (a bit biblical, a lot of Moses) register less like an epic odyssey and more like a Candidean misadventure: human soldiers belonging to a group called the Alpha Omega attack the apes, who successfully throw them back. Caesar spares the survivors' lives; the soldiers pays him back by raiding the apes' home and killing Caesar's wife and eldest son. Caesar sends his people away to a promised far-off sanctuary but doesn't lead them there; instead he goes on a one-man mission to confront the mysterious Colonel who ordered the raid. 

Caesar doesn't really go alone of course; Maurice, Luca, and Rocket (Terry Notary as a chimpanzee) insist on joining him and resolute leader that he is he lets them. Along the way Caesar's group is surprised not once but twice; first by a loner able to sneak up on their horses and steal a gun (Didn't anyone think to post a guard?), second by a group of soldiers who end up killing one of their own. The apes manage to successfully ambush one Alpha-Omega--a soldier gone AWOL to protect his suddenly mute daughter (Amiah Miller). Apparently the Colonel has a thing against mutes. 

Caesar feels he has to approach the military camp alone (Why? Not really sure.) and is captured (duh!) but not before he realizes that his entire group had been captured before him--had probably been scooped up soon as they left home. Caesar has fought humans before, has in fact fought this group before; he must have had some idea what they were capable of and still he let his folks go on their long perilous journey with at best a kiss and wave goodbye. Which gives rise to the dawning suspicion: does Caesar have garlic croutons for brains? Is he working with a full head of lettuce? In times of peace he may be Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering a rousing speech before the Lincoln Memorial but in times of war he's strictly George Armstrong Custer bracing himself for destiny at Little Bighorn. One thing that saves him from utter defeat: the Colonel--Woody Harrelson channeling Marlon Brando channeling Adolf Hitler--isn't that much better a strategist. Given an army of ape laborers the Colonel proceeds to work them to death without food and water; given the possibility of attack (apparently fellow soldiers are on their way to pound him into the ground for his 'unsound methods') said officer decides to build a wall (Sounds familiar?) made of logs and rock (Against Apache helicopters and air-to-ground missiles?) to keep the enemy out (which works out very well thanks).

You have to hand it to Caesar; after being tortured and starved and crucified he manages to engineer an escape for his folks--who are promptly discovered and just as promptly massacred. The slaughter is interrupted by the arrival of aforementioned rival faction who wipe out the Alpha Omega (arguably Caesar did all that by setting off an unlikely chain of fuel explosions but the A-Os are so obviously outmatched (their own Apaches must be in the garage) I suspect the most that Caesar did was save the attackers some ammo). The ape stares in horror as the victorious humans cheer the killing of half their number; they look back and you're not sure just what they're about to do--maybe rack their rifles and blow him away--when an avalanche sweeps it all under tons of ice and snow. 

Which brings us to the subject of military installations: avalanches are an often seasonal annual occurrence with usually predictable pathways; what military genius put said installation right smack dab in the middle of one such a pathway?

(O as for the initial premise--a disease that not only kills humans and increases ape intelligence but mutates to devolve the human brain's center of speech (At the same time presumably evolving the ape's?)? How genetically tailored is this bug anyway? Did anyone check to see if the Russians are involved?)

I guess I'm nitpicking--the point being I wouldn't be looking for nits if the initial concept was interesting enough to draw me in. Remember Pierre Boulle's original novel was a satire whose main conceit was a space traveler landing in a planet full of apes, said traveler realizing the apes represented the very worse his own species had to offer. Rod Serling and Franklin J. Schaffner (with rewrites by Michael Wilson) fashioned that satire into a mordantly witty Cold War parable, a monster hit that spawned several sequels a TV show an animated show and this reboot.

The reboot's filmmakers stand Boulee's concept on its head: instead of a cracked mirror held up to our faces the apes are some form of higher being--flawed perhaps but more capable than we of developing a nonviolent, nature-loving, openhearted society (one where at one point--I kid you not--a little girl sticks a tiny blossom in a massive gorilla's mane). Between the nightmare Boulle envisioned that Serling and Schaffner wittily realized on the big screen and this tepid tea I'm forced to sip for two hours and twenty minnutes which do you think I'd rather revisit? Free banana if you guess right.

First published in Businessworld 7.20.17

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