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War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

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As with much of my education, I have The Simpsons to thanks for introducing me to Planet of the Apes (see also, The Shining, Rear Window, 2001: a Space Odyssey, and The Fugitive).  In the episode ‘A Fish Called Selma’, Troy McClure attempts to resurrect his acting career by marrying Selma Boucier and starring in ‘Stop the Planet of the Apes.  I Want to Get Off!’, singing his way through a stage musical interpretation of the sci-fi classic.  From ‘Dr. Zaius’ to ‘You Finally Made a Monkey Out of Me’ via break-dancing apes, it’s absolute genius.

And now that will be stuck in my head for the rest of the day. It’s a brilliant spoof, but did mean that I wasn’t all that shocked when it came to the twist at the end of the 1968 film itself.  It’s a twist that so many people are aware of (not least because its plastered across the front of the DVD case!) that its easy to forget just how brilliant and shocking it must have been upon release.  That Charlton Heston had actually been on earth the entire time is one hell of a bombshell that left plenty more questions than answers.  Subsequent films attempted to answer those, (as well as dropping similar twist endings) and if we’re to ignore the Tim Burton remake (fair), it wasn’t until Rise of the Planet of the Apes that the franchise was explored again.

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Two years on from Dawn, war has broken out in full between humans and apes.  The film explores the role of war, it’s apparent inevitability at times, and what’s left of those that ‘win’.  A lot of dominoes have fallen along the way to get us to this point in the story, and despite a final attempt by Caesar for peace, we’re in too deep and the cold-hearted ruthlessness of Woody Harrelson’s Colonel soon scuppers any hope of that.  The humans have a deep rooted fear of what they are due to be usurped by, and (although clever developments out of their control further join the dots to the original film) humans are doing all they can to remain in top of the food chain.  Caesar and his tribe remain in the San Francisco forests, but after a huge personal blow, their leader has to leave them to take on the humans directly.  Its from that point that the film gets very interesting, as its that fork in the road that could so easily have resulted in a balls-out mega battle set piece rammed full of explosions and fights.  However, the film’s title works on various levels, and while the action is jaw dropping at times, it takes it's time and it's the emotional punch it packs that left me trying to keep it together come the end.  It's a brave decision, and I'm really pleased they did.  This is no copout excuse to print money, but a character study of one of the most interesting in recent years.  Caesar's journey through the three films has been a fantastic watch, and it culminates in a deeply emotional and satisfying conclusion.  Emotion is the key word too.  You see every inch of it in Caesar's face, as the motion capture technology gathers every slight movement of Serkis' face.  I doubt they will be able to see past the CGI makeup, but if they did I really believe that the judging panel would be going for a Serkis actor Oscar nomination.
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Let's be honest, the titles of the Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy make little sense.  War, third in that run, tries its best to explain that in opening credits catchup that highlight the words RISE, DAWN and then WAR.  I'm sorry, but Dawn comes before Rise, come on guys.  Thankfully I've been able to let that bugbear slide and have been a massive champion of these prequels since watching the first with my dad and brother on a rainy (shock) holiday in Scotland.  While Rise focused on the humans and how their technological 'developments' resulted in the beginning of the end of their species, Dawn shifted across to concentrate on their successors - apes.  By that point Andy Serkis and his facial recognition wizardry had gotten so advanced that it could convey the emotional range to such an accurate degree that it could hold an audience for an entire runtime.  Despite that, the film is still shared between the tribe of apes in the San Francisco Redwoods, and one of the last human colonies in the city.  However, in this third installment the shift is complete and as domination of the planet tips in the balance of the apes, so too does the focus of the film.  Again the technological advances have improved so much that I wasn't so much admiring how realistic it looked, as simply believing what I was watching.  If you're watching a film admiring how good the CGI looks, then you could argue it hasn't done it's job.  Not until you unwittingly accept what you're watching is real has the CGI (as well as the storytelling) played it's part correctly.  That's exactly what happens here.  I was never admiring how good the monkey fur looked as it dripped with water or was dusted in snow - it was so well done that it didn't distract from the story it was telling.

This is a brilliant franchise, and although I often find myself trying to justify it to people, I think it's right up there with the Dark Knight trilogy in my opinion.  Dawn always used to be my favourite, but having watched it back again recently I found the exposition scenes a little clunky if I was being really critical.  Matt Reeves' War for the Planet of the Apes didn’t even have that issue, and is therefore probably the best of the bunch.  The fan favourite, Maurice is now joined by a loveable Bad Ape, faced with Woody Harrelson on top form, but this is the Caesar show and I'm so relieved that War gives him the conclusion he deserves.  I can’t wait to complete the loop and watch the original back again soon.

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