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Film review: War for the Planet of the Apes

Film

“My God. Look at your eyes. Almost human.”

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After almost 50 years, nine movies, a television series and a couple of video games, you might wonder just how much more gold can be mined from the Planet of the Apes franchise.

The answer, my friends, is plenty – especially when you have ever more mind-boggling, eye-popping special effects and motion-capture technology to bring to the primate party.

Pitting conflicted ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) against the ruthless human army kingpin Colonel (Woody Harrelson) in an epic battle that promises to determine the fate of both their species, War for the Planet of the Apes is arguably the best film yet.

Directed by Matt Reeves, who was also at the helm of the 2014’s brilliant Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the latest tale begins with an intense firefight in the forest that leaves no doubt as to the ferocity of the conflict between the survivors of the simian flu that killed most humans but increased the intelligence of the apes.

Driven by his mission to “save humanity” and forestall an “Ape-ocalypse”, the psychopathic Colonel is determined to wipe out the apes.

Caesar, now older and showing a few grey hairs, is equally determined to protect his tribe, but is torn between a desire for peace and vengeance – he finally understands why his former rival, the bitter bonobo Koba, found it so difficult to forgive the humans.

While most of the apes set off on a refugee-like migration towards a new, safer homeland, Caesar and a small band of others, including the gentle orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), go in pursuit of the Colonel – and the inevitable confrontation.

War for the Planet of the Apes is bloody and action-packed, with violent battle scenes that rattle the cinema seats and take place against a spectacular backdrop of redwood forests and snowy mountains.

But it’s not simply a war movie. The script is more intelligent than you might expect, raising questions about the essence of “humanity”, ethics and leadership, even if it does so in a not-too-subtle manner. (The rogue Colonel, incidentally, is building a wall as part of his war plan.)

And the apes? They’re astonishingly realistic – especially Caesar (Roddy McDowall would hardly recognise him) – and as a result, easily elicit audience empathy. There are also welcome touches of humour, mostly involving scene-stealing “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn), a nervous and somewhat eccentric loner chimpanzee.

The most intense moments occur in the quiet between the skirmishes. Some of them involve the little girl (Amiah Miller) that Caesar and his group pick up along their mission; others occur in the exchanges between Caesar and the Colonel (apparently modelled on Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now).

The quote from the Colonel at the top of this article comes from one of those encounters. He acknowledges Caesar’s intelligence and strength, is almost in awe of him, but chides him for being too emotional, declaring: “There are times when it is necessary to abandon our humanity to save humanity.”

In light of current real-world conflicts, it’s a confronting proposition.

Ultimately, the War for the Planet of the Apes comes down to a battle not just of weapons but of wits, and the showdown is spectacular. This fan certainly wasn’t disappointed.

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