Thursday, July 27, 2017

It Came From The Cineplex: War For The Planet Of The Apes

War For The Planet Of The Apes was written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves, and directed by Matt Reeves.

Bomback is a VERY mediocre screenwriter who can occasionally pump out a decent script when he has to. Sadly, this is not one of those times. He previously wrote The Night Caller, Godsend, Live Free Or Die Hard, Deception, Race To Witch Mountain, Unstoppable, Total Recall (2012), The Wolverine, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes and The Divergent Series: Insurgent.

Matt Reeves worked mostly in TV until his cinematic directorial break, Cloverfield. He also directed Let Me In (the American remake of Let The Right One In) and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes.

Take Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, throw out everything that made it good and cross it with a Cliff Notes version of Apocalypse Now and you'll have a pretty good idea what this movie's like.

I thought Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (the first film in the trilogy) was just OK at best. I loved Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes though, as it was a quantum leap forward in terms of writing, characterization and quality (I even gave it a A grade!). It was almost like a Shakespearian tragedy— I found myself hoping the fragile ape/human alliance would work out, even though I knew it was doomed from the start. The movie asked hard questions about race, prejudice and trust, and didn't flinch at answering them. 
I eagerly looked forward to the third chapter.

Unfortunately War For The Planet Of The Apes is a huge step backwards. Somehow War took everything that made Dawn a smartly written film and completely dumbed it down. Gone are the deep, thoughtful questions on the nature of humanity, replaced with a cliched revenge plot pulled straight out of a comic book adaptation of Moby Dick

Characterization suffers here too. In Dawn, Caesar was a flawed, complex character who felt real, despite the fact that he was a talking ape. Here he's been reduced to a cartoon character who's as shallow as the pixels used to render his form. He's gone from a thoughtful leader who desperately tried to find a way for apes and humans to coexist, to a reckless vigilante whose obsession with vengeance outweighs the good of his people.

Worst of all is the ridiculous ending. Apparently the writers were unable to come up with a satisfactory way to wrap up the war between the species, so they literally wipe the humans off the screen with a comically contrived deus ex machina.

So what went wrong here? Why is War such a step downwards in quality? If I had to guess, I'd say the fault lies with the writing team— or rather the lack of it. Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver wrote Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, and co-wrote Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes along with Mark Bomback. For some reason they didn't return for this third installment. Apparently they were the real talents of the franchise, as their absence is keenly felt here.


So far the film's grossed $100 million domestically, and $77 million overseas, for a worldwide total of $177 million against its $150 million budget. That ain't good. Rise grossed $481 million (worldwide), while Dawn raked in an impressive $710 million (also worldwide). I don't know if it's just bad timing or people are tired of CGI apes, but War definitely has its work cut out for it if it wants to surpass (or even equal!) its predecessors.

SPOILERS!

The Plot:
To recap: It's been fifteen years since the Simian Flu swept the world, killing billions of humans and smartening up the great apes (which we saw happen in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes). Caesar the chimp (played by Andy Serkis), the leader of a large group of apes, struggled to live in peace with the remaining humans. Unfortunately a rogue bonobo named Koba (played by Toby Kebbell) betrayed Caesar, causing a war between the apes and humanity. Caesar broke the apes' cardinal rule and killed Koba, ending the conflict (as seen in Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes). He and his tribe now live deep in the Muir Woods, inside an abandoned human command base behind a waterfall. OK, we're all caught up!

As the apes mind their own business, a team of soldiers quietly sneak through the woods and surround them. The humans are helped by a couple of turncoat apes (including a gorilla named Red) who were loyal to Koba. The soldiers attack the ape base, but Caesar's tribe savagely strikes back with spears and guns.

Caesar's forces several humans, including one named Preacher, who'll become important later on. They capture Red as well. Caesar sends the humans back to their camp unharmed, to show their commander the apes are peaceful. He holds onto the traitorous Red though, ordering an albino gorilla named Winter to lock him up. Unfortunately Red escapes from Winter and heads back to the human camp.

Just then Caesar's son Blue Eyes returns from a scouting mission, reuniting with his mate Lake. Blue Eyes tells him of a Hidden Valley he discovered, where the apes would be safe from humanity forever (?). It seems unlikely there'd be anyplace on Earth that humans wouldn't eventually find, but let's just go with it or we'll be here all day. Many of the apes are all for moving, but Caesar's reluctant to go. Instead he huddles with his wife Cornelia and youngest son Cornelius.

That night the ape camp is raided by another squad of human soldiers, led by Colonel McCullough (played by Woody Harrelson). Because that's what army Colonels do, right? They lead dangerous missions instead of controlling troop movements from a command bunker. The Colonel kills Blue Eyes and Cornelia, thinking he's slaying Caesar and his wife. Caesar wakes and finds his wife and son dead. He spots the The Colonel as he climbs up a rope beyond the waterfall. Enraged, Caesar leaps after him and follows up the rope. The Colonel cuts the rope, and Caesar falls into a pool far below.

Caesar returns to the cave and discovers his youngest son Cornelius is still alive. He asks Lake to watch over Cornelius, and then orders his people to head for the Hidden Valley immediately, while he goes off to seek revenge on The Colonel. Maurice the orangutan is shocked that Caesar isn't personally leading his people to their promised land.

Caesar rides off to the soldier's camp, which he somehow knows how to find, and is soon followed by Maurice, Rocket the chimp and Luca the gorilla. Caesar orders them away, saying this is something he has to do himself. They refuse to leave, insisting on protecting him. The apes soon come to a small human outpost. They're surprised to see Winter there, and discover he's defected after Red talked him into letting him go. Caesar interrogates Winter, who tells him The Colonel and his men are heading toward their larger border camp. Caesar knocks out Winter and leaves him unconscious.

The next day the apes find a cabin, where they surprise a human gathering wood. He tries to shoot them, but Caesar kills the man first. Inside the cabin they find a young human girl. She struggles to speak, but can't for some reason. Maurice gives her a doll to calm her down, and takes her with him. Caesar objects, but Maurice says he's not leaving her to die alone.

The apes enter a snowy, mountainous region, where they find the executed bodies of three of The Colonel's men. Miraculously, one's still alive, and Caesar attempts to question him. Unfortunately the man can't speak, just like the girl. Hmmm... Caesar kills the mortally wounded man, putting him out of his misery.

Just then a shadowy figure steals one of their rifles and horses. They chase after it, and corner it in an abandoned building. They see it's a small chimp who calls himself Bad Ape (played by Steve Zahn). He explains that he lived in a zoo, and after the Simian Flu elevated his intelligence, he learned to speak from watching and listening to humans. Bad Ape gives his jacket to the girl, along with a metallic car emblem that reads "NOVA." Fan service!

The next day Luca and Nova bond, until he's shot and killed by one of The Colonel's snipers. Caesar says this is why he wanted to come alone. Maurice tells Caesar his thirst for revenge is turning him into Koba.

That night Caesar heads for The Colonel's camp alone. Outside the camp he sees several familiar apes crucified on large wooden "X"s. Why, it's almost like The Colonel's trying to send a message, and the camp is a Forbidden Zone! More fan service! Caesar tries to free one of the apes, who tells him that shortly after he left, the apes were all ambushed and captured by The Colonel's men. Just then Caesar's knocked out by Red.

When Caesar wakes up he's taken to see The Colonel, and tells him he plans to kill him for murdering his wife and child. The Colonel apologizes, saying he actually meant to kill Caesar. He orders him to be put to work with the other captured apes, to build a giant wall around the camp. Caesar's relieved to see that Cornelius and Lake are still alive.

The humans force the apes to work endlessly on the wall for days, with no food or water. Caesar eventually tells them to stop until they're fed. This angers The Colonel, who orders Caesar to be whipped. Lake and the other apes start working again in order to save Caesar's life.

Later Red and Preacher bring Caesar to The Colonel's office. The Colonel tells him that the Simian Flu is starting to mutate, and it's causing the human survivors to lose their ability to speak and to regress to a primitive state (which explains why Nova can't talk). The Colonel says his own son was affected by this new strain, and he was forced to kill him, which obviously unhinged him. The Colonel claims the military's blind to what's happening, so he and a group of men deserted to form their own enclave. The wall is meant to protect them from the military that's coming to put an end to The Colonel's rogue faction.

The Colonel then agrees to feed and water the apes— except for Caesar. Meanwhile, Maurice, Rocket, Bad Ape and Nova observe the camp. Somehow Nova sashays into the camp unchallenged and unseen, giving Caesar food and water, and inexplicably, her doll. A group of soldiers approach, and Rocket distracts them so Nova can get away. He's captured and thrown in with the other apes. The Colonel sees the doll in Caesar's cage and realizes something's going on. For some reason he picks up the doll and takes it to his office.

Somehow Bad Ape knows there're a series of tunnels under the camp, and Maurice realizes they can use them to free their people. Bad Ape digs through the top of a tunnel, popping up inside the main ape cage. Rocket creates a diversion by throwing his feces at a human guard (!). This angers the guard so much he actually enters the cage and demands to know who threw their poop. He just happens to stop at the perfect spot so that Bad Ape can pull him underground.

The apes begin evacuating their young out of the camp, and Rocket manages to free Caesar. Rocket's stunned when Caesar tells him to go on without him, as he can't let go of his hatred of The Colonel and plans to finish him off. Some leader!

Just then the real military shows up and launches an all-out attack on The Colonel's crazy faction. Naturally the makeshift wooden wall is no match for missiles and other high tech weaponry, and is instantly breached. In the confusion Caesar enters The Colonel's office, and sees him lying in bed, seemingly drunk. He sees The Colonel's holding Nova's doll and realizes he's been struck dumb by the mutated flu as well. That was quick! Caesar hands The Colonel his gun, and he uses the last of his intelligence to shoot himself in the head.

Caesar's then caught between the two warring human armies. He's shot with an arrow by Preacher, the man he showed mercy to earlier. I'll bet there's a message there somewhere! Red, who's still working for the humans, sees Caesar fall. He decides to have a third act change of heart, and turns on his oppressors. Caesar grabs a grenade belt and throws it at a fuel truck, blowing up the entire camp. Caesar of course manages to escape somehow.

Caesar watches as the newly-arrived army cheers the destruction of The Colonel and his forces. Just then a couple of these new soldiers spot Caesar, and draw their guns on him. Before they can fire, a massive avalanche— triggered by the explosion— flows down the mountain.

Caesar and the other apes quickly climb to safety, as the deus ex machina, er, I mean the avalanche completely wipes out the human army. Well, that was certainly easy! No more messy truces or trying to get along with the humans!

The apes then head for the magical Hidden Valley, where no mean nasty humans will ever be able to find them. They finally arrive, and see the Valley is a virtual paradise, filled with abundant trees and flowing rivers. Caesar and Maurice watch with satisfaction as their people make themselves at home. Suddenly Caesar slumps over, as we see his wound was more serious than he let on. He asks Maurice to take care of Cornelius for him. Maurice says he'll make sure that his son, and all apes, will know what he did for them. Caesar then dies in peace.

Thoughts:

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes was absolutely lousy with Easter eggs, shoutouts and callbacks to the original Planet Of The Apes franchise. I counted at least twenty one such references in the film. One or two in-jokes would have been fine, but after a while this constant fan service became extremely distracting and downright annoying.

Thankfully, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes featured were few if any callbacks, and all was right with the world.

Annnnd now the references are back with a vengeance in War Of The Planet Of The Apes.

Many of the ape names are references to the original franchise. Caesar's son Blue Eyes is likely a nod to "Bright Eyes," the nickname given to Taylor by Dr. Zira in Planet Of The Apes. Caesar's youngest son is named Cornelius, which was the name of Roddy McDowell's character in Planet Of The Apes. Maurice the orangutan is a shoutout to actor Maurice Evans, who played Dr. Zauis in Planet Of The Apes. Caesar was of course the ape protagonist in Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes. (to be fair, these names were all established in Rise and Dawn, so I can't fault this film too awfully much for using them again. Still, a shoutout is a shoutout!).

The mute human girl found by Caesar and his peeps is nicknamed "Nova." Actress Linda Harrison played Nova, Taylor's mute human mate in Planet Of The Apes and Beneath The Planet Of The Apes.

The Colonel calls his rebel faction the Alpha & Omega. In Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, a group of underground mutated humans worshiped an atomic bomb that was called Alpha & Omega.

When Caesar first approaches The Colonel's base, he sees a group of apes crucified on large wooden "X"s. There were similar wooden crosses used to mark the edge of the Forbidden Zone in Planet Of The Apes.

After Caesar dies at the end of the movie, it's implied that Maurice will take his place as leader. In the original franchise, the ape society was led by an orangutan called "The Lawgiver."

• These motion capture actors have apes on the brain! In the film, Andy Serkis plays Caesar, while famed "movement coach" Terry Notary plays Rocket. Oddly enough, both men have played King Kong before— Serkis played him in 2005's King Kong, while Notary played him in Kong: Skull Island.

• Credit Where Credit's Due: The script might be disappointing, but the ape effects in War are top notch. The CGI has improved exponentially with each successive film, and that's especially true here. 

Take Maurice, for example. He looks absolutely real to me, and if I didn't know he was a CGI creation, I'd think that the director just filmed a real, highly trained orangutan. I think it's his realistic ape eyes that complete the illusion.

Unfortunately Caesar doesn't fare quite as well. It's not that he doesn't look a living, breathing creature, because he does. It's just that he doesn't look like a real chimp. That's no doubt due to the fact that the filmmakers did their best to map mocap actor Andy Serkis' facial features onto Caesar. Instead of looking like an actual chimp, this makes him look like some kind of weird human/ape hybrid.

• The Colonel's actual name is never spoken in the movie, but according to the patch on his uniform, it's "McCullough."

• The traitor apes working for The Colonel are called "donkeys" by the human soldiers. Supposedly this is a reference to Donkey Kong (com-O-dee!) as well as the fact that these apes are used as pack animals.


• As I said earlier, Dawn was a smartly written film, filled with realistic characters who acted accordingly. Suddenly in War everyone's apparently taken a large dose of Stupid Pills, as they make one boneheaded decision after another. Case in point: Why is Caesar suddenly such a horrible leader in this movie? In the previous film he did whatever was necessary to protect his tribe. Then in War he throws that all away, as he abruptly develops an Ahab-like obsession with killing The Colonel. In fact he's so dead set on murdering him that he can't be bothered to lead his people to their "promised land," sending them off on the journey by themselves!

Yes, The Colonel did kill Caesar's family, which was a bad thing. But that doesn't justify his abandonment of his his huge colony. "The needs of the many" and all that.

Worst of all, the screenwriters actually reference this in the movie, as Maurice says Caesar's need for revenge makes him as bad as Koba (the vengeance-obsessed villain of the previous film). So they recognized that they were corrupting their own character, and then went ahead and did it anyway!

• At one point Caesar and his posse run into Nova's dad, and shoot him in self defense. A few minutes later she wanders out of her cabin and stares down at her father's lifeless body. Not one wisp of emotion ever flickers across her face.

Later in the film, Nova stares amazed at a tree that's inexplicably bloomed in the snow. Luca the gorilla picks a flower from the tree and places it in Nova's hair. A few minutes later Luca's killed. Nova immediately climbs atop his body and sobs uncontrollably. If she was capable of speech, she no doubt would have thrown her head back and screamed to the heavens, "WHYYYYYY?"

So she couldn't possibly care less that her dad was killed, but she's devastated by the loss of a gorilla she's known all of a day. One that she had no prior interaction with, save for the flower thing. What the hell?

Wouldn't it have made much more sense if Maurice had been the one who was killed, and Nova grieved over him? After all, the two of them had a special rapport from the moment they met. I suppose the screenwriters couldn't afford to lose Maurice, since he's been with the series from the beginning and they obviously meant for him to take Caesar's place. The least they could have done though was to establish a bond between Nova and Luca early on, so her reaction to his death would have felt earned. As it stands it comes completely out of nowhere.


• Caesar and his crew meet Bad Ape, a chimp from a zoo who learned to speak by listening to his human captors. Supposedly this is a shocking moment in the franchise, as it confirms that Caesar and his tribe aren't the only talking apes in the world. 

Hmm. The Simian Flu enhanced the intelligence of apes across the globe, so I just assumed they all started talking too. Apparently not though. It seems odd to think that the only apes with the power of speech are in the San Francisco area.

I guess this makes sense though. Caesar was a special case, who was taught sign language at an early age and learned to speak from his owner Will Rodman. He then passed this knowledge onto the various members of his tribe. 

So what's going on in other parts of the world? Did the apes in Europe and Asia become intelligent, but never learned to talk or sign? Or did they made up their own languages?

• Bad Ape lives in a snowy, mountainous environment, and wears human clothing to protect him against the cold. Seems like a good idea. So why don't any of the other apes ever do this? Do they not like the idea of wearing human-made garments, or are they just not affected by the cold?

Seeing them wearing coats and hats would have been a nice tie-in to the original franchise, in which the apes were all fully clothed.

• Welp, they finally went there. 2017 will go down in history as the year in which a Planet Of The Apes movie featured an ape that actually threw its own feces at a human.

• More stupidity: After Rocket throws his crap at a soldier, the man is so incensed that he opens the ape cage and enters it alone! Doesn't tell anyone else what he's doing, doesn't call for backup, just waltzes right into a cage filled with hundreds of angry apes. And then of course he's immediately pulled underground and presumably killed. Serves him right.

• Even more stupidity: The Colonel knows the Simian Flu virus has mutated, causing human survivors to lose the ability to think and speak. Several of his men— including his own son— have succumbed to this new strain.

So of course he and his men take absolutely zero precautions against catching the disease. Not even so much as a cotton face mask. They even go so far as to house hundreds of captured apes (who are likely Simian Flu carriers) in the middle of their camp!

Granted, The Colonel does execute several of his own men who have the disease, but only AFTER they start showing symptoms. It's way too late by that point!

• Still more stupidity: Nova sneaks into The Colonel's camp to give Caesar food and water. Hilariously she makes little or no attempt to hide, and none of the human soldiers ever seem to notice her. Isn't The Colonel building a wall to keep out a rapidly-approaching army? One would think security at the camp would be at an all-time high in such a situation. Apparently not though, as a little girl can come and go as she pleases.

• I don't think the screenwriters understand how tunnels work.


Maurice, Rocket & Bad Ape look for a way to rescue Caesar and their people from The Colonel. Suddenly Bad Ape falls through some rickety wooden planks, down into a series of tunnels that run under the camp. Maurice and Bad Ape then explore these cement-lined tunnels. They spot a ladder, Bad Ape climbs it, and somehow pokes his head up through the ground inside the camp.

So... did he dig his way through several inches of cement while we weren't looking? Or was there a hole in the top of the tunnel, covered by just a couple inches of grass and dirt? Based on the way his head pops through, it certainly looks like the latter. How the hell did none of The Colonel's men ever accidentally fall through this deathtrap?

Later on Bad Ape finds another tunnel and this time sticks his head through the ground inside the captive apes' cage, rescuing them. Again, this second hole appears to be covered by nothing more than a couple inches of dirt and grass. There's no way at least one of the hundreds of apes in the cage wouldn't have fallen through.

• The Colonel says the Northern Army is coming to eliminate his rogue faction. In order to hold back this technologically advance invasion force, he orders a wall be built around his camp.

What's this tremendous, impregnable wall made of, you ask? Solid steel? reinforced concrete? Bamboo? Nope! It's made of logs and whatever other junk the ape slaves can find to stack up. "Primitive" doesn't even begin to describe it. In fact, if left to themselves, the apes could probably make a better looking and more substantial wall!

Sure enough, when the Northern Army arrives, it only takes one or two air to ground missiles to completely punch through the sad, ramshackle little wall.

• As I mentioned earlier, the film ends with a hilariously convenient deus ex machina in the form of an avalanche, that literally sweeps away every single one of the apes' human adversaries. It gives new meaning to the word contrived.

After watching this scene, I am 99% sure the following conversation happened in the War For The Planet Of The Apes writer's room:

Mark Bomback: "OK, so Caesar just singlehandedly took out The Colonel's troops with a well-timed explosion, but then the massive Northern Army arrives. How are we gonna resolve this plot line?"
Matt Reeves: "Well... we could have Caesar rally his apes and attack the Northern Army."
Mark Bomback: "Nah, the movie's already well over two hours long. That'd add at least another hour to the runtime."
Matt Reeves: "We could end it as the Northern Army arrives and have the apes fight them in a fourth movie."
Mark Bomback: "Nah, we can't do that. Andy Serkis is only contracted for three films. He'd want a fortune to do a fourth. What are we gonna do?"
Matt Reeves: "How about this? A big avalanche comes down the mountain and wipes out all the bad humans, leaving the apes fully in charge of the world?"
Mark Bomback: "Are you kidding me? That's the dumbest, most hackneyed ending possible! The movie'd be laughed off the screen and we'd never work in Hollywood again!"
Matt Reeves: "Fine. So what do you suggest we do instead?"

Cut to one year later, as the film ends with a giant avalanche wiping out all the bad humans, leaving the apes fully in charge of the world.


• In Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, a TV in the background airs a news broadcast stating that the spaceship Icarus has entered Mars' atmosphere.

A bit later we see a newspaper headline saying the Icarus has been "Lost In Space."

At the end of War, I half expected to see a post-credits scene of the Icarus returning to Earth, as the astronauts discovered the planet was now ruled by apes. I still wouldn't rule this out. They went to a lot of trouble to mention this ship in Rise, much more so than if it was just a fun little Easter egg.

War For The Planet Of The Apes is a big step backwards for the franchise, and a disappointing finish to the trilogy. Everything that made Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes great has been turned on its head and dumbed down here, resulting in a film that's mediocre at best. For completists only. I wish I could score it higher, but sadly, I have to give it a C+.


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