An End to the War

A movie trilogy is a different animal than a series. Rather than an on-going story with repeat characters, a trilogy focuses on a story too large to fit in one movie. It’s closer to a three-act play in construction. The Lord of the Rings and the original Star Wars movies are good examples, and there’s a good chance the current Star Wars series may accomplish the feat as well. I’d also make the case that the special edition of Godfather I & II, cut into chronological order, fits as a trilogy: Vito, Vito & Michael, Michael alone. (We’ll forget about Godfather III; Please, let’s forget about Godfather III!)

With War for the Planet of the Apes, the series begun in Rise and continued in Dawn now fits as a trilogy – and a stunning third chapter it is! The accomplishment is all the more amazing in view of the origins of the series. The original Planet of the Apes is a sci-fi classic, with its script adapted by Rod Serling from a book by Pierre Boulle (who also wrote the novel The Bridge on the River Kwai). With the mammoth success of the movie, Twentieth Century Fox ordered a sort-of sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, with its climax being the total destruction of the planet. Not the best move if you want another sequel, but Fox did the time warp again and went back to show how Earth became the Planet of the Apes. The movies were schlocky after the first, but were embraced by fanboys before Hollywood realized there was such a thing as fanboys. Tim Burton’s remake of the original kept the schlock without the grace of Serling’s script, and it had one of the worse endings ever stuck on a movie. But it was a financial success, grossing nearly $200 million.

At the same time as Burton’s movie with its made-up monkeys, Peter Jackson was revolutionizing character animation by using motion capture (mocap) technology to create Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Animation is originally the artist’s creation, with an actor adding their voice. Mocap technology works more like virtual make-up to support the actor’s performance. It’s the actor’s expressions and physical movements that control the animation, and because of that mocap performances should be considered along with all other performances during awards season. Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar in War is definitely Oscar-caliber.

War takes place fifteen years after the experimental drug augmented the intelligence of Caesar’s band of apes and led to a pandemic that wiped out most of the humans race. But pockets survive, including a military regiment under the command of The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). At the end of Dawn, the human survivors in San Francisco had contacted the regiment, and the Colonel led his men south to battle the apes. War begins with a skirmish between the two groups, with Caesar defeating the Colonel’s men. Rather than killing or imprisoning the surviving soldiers, Caesar sends them back as a peace offering. All he wants is to be left alone by humans. But the maniacal Colonel blames the apes for the destruction of society, and in a horrible attack he comes close to destroying Caesar’s world.

Caesar sends the rest of his apes to where he believes they’ll be safe, while he heads out to have his revenge on the Colonel. Some apes accompany him, including the wise orangutan Maurice (Karin Konaval). Caesar is also haunted by the spirit of Koba (Toby Kebbell) whose anger and obsession precipitated the confrontation with the San Franciso humans in Dawn. Along the way Caesar’s band picks up two new members: the mute human child Nova (Amiah Miller) and the elderly chimp from a Lake Tahoe zoo who thinks his name is what the humans kept calling him, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn).

War for the Planet of the Apes has as part of its DNA the westerns of John Ford, with Caesar coming close to the obsessive Ethan Edwards played by John Wayne in The Searchers. He’s matched by the Colonel, who echoes Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. But War creates its own powerful story, and the interaction between Serkis and Harrelson crackles with electric energy.

While Zahn’s character is called Bad Ape, he is anything but, and Zahn injects a beautiful humanity (it’s the only word that fits) into his character. Humanity also flows from Amiah Miller’s Nova, who is adopted for all intents and purposes by Maurice. She has an assurance in front of the camera that is far beyond her years, and though she only signs a few lines in the film, her eyes speak volumes.

Matt Reeves, who helmed Dawn, returns to the director’s chair for War, and he again collaborated with Mark Bomback on the script. As with the screenwriters of Rise, Reeves and Bomback both play with and pay homage to the original series. Yet War is far superior to any of the original five movies, including the first. War rises to a Shakespearean level of drama, even as it tugs on your heart.

There’s been some talk of a fourth film, but I really hope the studio will leave well enough alone. The story of Caesar in Rise, Dawn, and War is fulfilling, and deserves the grace of an ending.

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Darkness at Dawn

If ever there was a movie series that has reaped the benefit of modern technology, it’s Planet of the Apes. While the makeup in the original 1968 move was quite impressive for its day, you never forgot that you were watching actors in heavy latex prosthetics. The movie’s theme and its killer twist overcame the prosthetics – and allowed the film to become a five-movie series. There were some makeup improvements in the Tim Burton reboot, but the rest of the film was such a mess you hardly noticed them, and it looked like the series was dead. But then came 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, using motion capture technology and the genius of Andy Serkis’ embodiment of Caesar. For the first time, the intelligence-enhanced apes were believable, and fascinating. The success of Rise led to the newest film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The end of Rise foreshadowed a nasty plague caused by the Gen-Sys anti-Alzheimer’s drug ALZ 113, the treatment that gave Caesar (Serkis) and the other apes their intelligence. In a simple but effective sequence, the plague – called the Simian Flu because of its tie to ape testing – is tracked to its final devastation of mankind. Ten years have passed since Caesar led his apes north of San Francisco to Muir Woods where they set up their own society. During a hunt for food, Caesar and another of the original tribe, Koba (Toby Kebbell) must save Caesar’s son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) from a rampaging bear. They return to the settlement where Caesar’s wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) presents him with a new child. Cornelia, though, shows signs of illness.

Later while walking through the woods, Blue Eyes and a friend come face to face with a human. The man’s both armed and paranoid about apes, and he shoots Blue Eyes’ friend out of fear. The man is part of a small group under the leadership of Malcolm (Jason Clarke) that wants to find and restore a hydro power plant to give electricity to an outpost of humans still living in San Francisco. Caesar at first refuses the request, forcefully telling the leader of the outpost, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) to forget the plan. But Malcolm, along with his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his partner Ellie (Keri Russell), return to the forest and are able to change Caesar’s mind. While they make progress toward peaceful co-existence, both Dreyfus and Koba prepare for war.

Jason Clarke has a wonderful ability to communicate both physical strength as well as sensitive intelligence. His role as Dan, the CIA agent in charge of enhanced interrogations in Zero Dark Thirty, played up how quietly imposing he can be, while in Dawn he is the hope for understanding, following in the footsteps of James Franco’s role in Rise. Oldman is effective as always as the less-than-trusting Dreyfus, while Russell and Smit-McPhee provide good support for the story.

Toby Kebbell’s Koba rises almost to the level of Shakespeare’s Iago or Richard III. He’s fearsome, and the physical manifestation is truly frightening, yet he’ll pull on a mask and act the fool when he must. The moment when he drops the mask, though, is starkly powerful. A strong antagonist is needed to make a story memorable, and Kebbell provides that strength.

Caesar remains the central character, a leader trying to balance power and mercy. While the embodiment is incredible, what sets it apart is when the camera focuses on Serkis’ eyes and you read his thoughts. While he’ll never be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar – the prejudice against technology is too strong – in both Rise and Dawn Serkis does Oscar-caliber work. Serkis continues to be busy, with Avengers: Age of Ultron coming next year to be followed by a new Tintin movie as well as Star Wars 7.

Director Matt Reeves had worked in television (including several episodes of “Felicity” with Keri Russell) before moving to the big screen with Cloverfield and Let Me In. While those movies were a solid start, with Dawn he reaches blockbuster success. He’s assisted by production designer James Chinlund (The Avengers) who creates a post-human world where nature has taken charge again. Also, one particular kudo to the movie for not destroying the Golden Gate Bridge as a cheap post-apocalyptic visual. It’s become so common (Godzilla destroyed it two months ago) that leaving the bridge intact stands out.

With Rise and now Dawn, screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, assisted by Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard, Unstoppable) on the new film, have not just rebooted the series but have completely reimagined it, adding depth and emotional heart that was absent in the original movies. Dawn made more in its initial weekend than Rise, and it has topped the weekend box office for two weeks straight. According to IMDb, another movie is in the works with Reeves directing as well as collaborating on the script with Bomback. I’m looking forward to seeing it.