Thursday, July 20, 2017

Farewell to the Planet of the Apes

I've never mentioned this before on my blog, but I'm actually a huge fan of the Andy Serkis Planet of the Apes movies. Almost embarrassingly huge. I saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes four times in theaters, I've made memes and fanart, and I created my own OC character who's a gibbon because I've always wanted there to be one in the series. I even used to post Chuck Norris-style "facts" about Maurice the orangutan all over the internet to try and build the character's fanbase because I love him so much.

And for the record, Maurice doesn't ride his horse. He levitates himself with his superpowers and just holds a horse in place under him so he doesn't look more impressive than Caesar. Maurice is humble like that.

As you can imagine, I was anxiously awaiting War for the Planet of the Apes, and I finally got to see it this past Sunday. So what did I think of it?

Frankly, I think this movie gives The Dark Knight a run for its money. But let's look back on the Apes reboot trilogy as a whole first.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes 

It's astounding to see War for the Planet of the Apes and realize that it's in the same series as 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes. As much as I love Rise, there's no denying that it can be a very silly film. Most of its human characters are laughably one-dimensional, the apes are way too intelligent before receiving the virus that's supposed to enhance them, and it leans on one contrivance after another in order for its story to happen. The movie fails so much at depicting how biology labs, ape sanctuaries, and police squads function that I question whether the filmmakers did any research at all.

Despite that, you can tell that there's something a lot more compelling and meaningful underneath all of that. Rise is a summer blockbuster that spends its first two thirds almost entirely on heartfelt character development and centers around someone who (for the most part) can't speak. It's a character study first and foremost, and it tackles difficult moral issues while exploring concepts like self-identity and hubris. I should also mention that Andy Serkis's performance as Caesar really is some of his best acting and that some of the CGI ape effects are pretty darn impressive, even looking like tangible creations at times. And yes, the film does have a lot of entertaining action scenes.

It's actually pretty interesting to read about older drafts of Rise's screenplay. It sounds like the filmmakers wanted it to be a lot darker and more challenging originally, but eventually toned it down and lightened the mood. My guess is that Fox Studios pushed them to play things safer and simpler since Tim Burton's 2001 "reimagining" had a lot of people leery about another Planet of the Apes picture.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The second film obviously fared much better. Dawn's post-apocalyptic setting allowed it to scrap all of that real world red tape and focus just on the characters, and Rise's success gave the sequel more freedom to be gritty and complex. In place of the mustache-twirling corporate creeps and bully stereotypes, we get human characters who are mostly good at heart but willing to oppose the apes out of desperation. We even see a lot of parallels between the character dynamics in their group and the ape characters. What's more, the main villain is actually one of the apes whose tragic backstory makes him intriguing and sympathetic to a point. All of these things really blur the lines between species and give an interesting commentary on what defines humanity.

Granted, Dawn does still have its share of silly elements, but it earns them. You can have a stock, self-proclaimed "asshole" character if you surround him with well fleshed-out ones. You can have an acrobatic final battle on top of a burning city if you've fully built up the conflict and the stakes. And when you give us a charming, atmospheric scene with little dialogue where characters bond over a 60's song whose lyrics reflect and foreshadow the events of the plot, you are totally allowed to follow it up with a bonobo on a horse firing machine guns in both hands while howling in rage like Rambo.

Seriously, that's got to be the most ridiculously amazing shot in the whole trilogy.

I will admit though that the extreme anti-gun message in Dawn is pretty awkward when you remember that this franchise once starred the president of the NRA. Then again, the Tim Burton film featured said president delivering that same message himself, so this is much less awkward by comparison.

War for the Planet of the Apes 

And that brings us to the new film. We get a lot more nods to the original Planet of the Apes movies in this one than in Dawn, though not nearly as many as in Rise. In fact, the references in War serve more as setups for the original film (or more likely, a future remake of it) than they do as homages. Even the music sounds similar to the original's score at times, which is a pretty clever touch.

We do get a slight downgrade in the villain and a lot less moral variety in the humans this time around. There's one little girl who's good and everyone else is an ape-hating soldier. There's also a female chimp that I'm pretty sure was just thrown into the script in response to the complaints about Dawn's near lack of female characters. She doesn't hurt the film though, and neither do the humans. In fact, their overall ruthlessness actually contributes a lot to the story's concept of the human race starting to devolve; they're losing their humanity in more ways than one.

War is by far the darkest and harshest film of the three, but never once does that tone feel forced or manipulative. It's all done to show that the script isn't pulling any punches in addressing its themes. It explores the definition of humanity and how hatred can corrupt noble intentions, just like Dawn did, but it also deals with emotion versus logic and reason versus instinct with the external conflict of man versus beast as a metaphor for that. The big twist in it is that it's the apes who view the world more humanely than the humans do. Most poignantly, it conveys that sometimes the best way for good to overcome evil is not to destroy it, but just to endure until evil destroys itself. I don't know many other summer action flicks that can pull that off and still exhilarate an audience.

And for a bit of levity, this is the movie where the apes finally grant my wish from six years ago and solve a problem by throwing poop at someone. I don't care how super-intelligent they are; they were born as normal apes and they should have remembered a long time ago how effective that tactic is.


I think a big part of why these new Planet of the Apes movies turned out so well was the way that their releases were paced. Ever since Lord of the Rings, a lot of film franchises have fallen into the mindset that they need to crank out an installment every year in order to stay relevant, but more often than not, this results in a lot of very rushed, mediocre, unmemorable films. This series took its time though, and not only did that allow the filmmakers to create the best movies they possibly could, it also gave us more time to grow attached to its world and characters before the story ended.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out just a couple months after I graduated from college, and over these past six years, I've evolved and matured right alongside this trilogy. These movies have become really special to me because they represent a transformation, an ongoing change throughout the stages of one's life. They show that those changes can be daunting, but if you approach them thoughtfully and carefully, you'll pull through to the end.

And if it seemed like overkill to say that War for the Planet of the Apes gives The Dark Knight a run for its money, I should reveal that the Joker actually got his scars from Maurice the orangutan.

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