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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Tired of Games

When “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins was published in 2008, it became a phenomenon. In six years the original along with the other two books in the trilogy, “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay,” sold over 65 million copies. Its success paved the way for a plethora of other dystopian young adult trilogies such as “Divergent” and “The Maze Runner.” The movie adaptation was just as successful, with a domestic box office of over $400 million, good enough for third place in 2012 behind The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. The next year Catching Fire topped the box office with $425 million. Mockingjay Part 1’s earnings were lower ($337 million) but it still would have won the 2014 box office if not for Clint Eastwood’s sleeper megahit, American Sniper. Now we finally come to the end of the saga with Mockingjay Part 2. Nine hours of film spread out over four years is a long time to maintain excitement for an audience, and this movie feels like it’s out of breath and stumbling forward to the finish line.

Part of the problem lies in the books themselves. It’s hard to comprehend the capitol falling to the rebels within one year, especially with a president as ruthless as Snow. Historically, every revolution that succeeded happened because of weakness at the top. Rather than building to a climax as you have with The Lord of the Rings, here the final act tries to rush through wrapping up the story. Splitting the book into two movies underlines that weakness.

It’s beyond argument that Jennifer Lawrence is one of the brightest lights currently in the cinematic universe. Beginning with Winter’s Bone and continuing through Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and the upcoming Joy, she’s still at the beginning of what one hopes will be a Streep-like career that will go on for decades of outstanding performances. But even great acting can’t fully overcome a poorly-written character. Katniss Everdeen was brash, prickly, strong-willed and somewhat insensitive in the first two movies, but it was understandable given her history and there was hope she’d grow. It seemed with the final shot of Catching Fire that she’d reached a moment of maturity, that she would become a leader of the rebellion rather than a symbol or figurehead. But with both Mockingjay movies her character regresses, and so her actions become tedious. Even Scarlet O’Hara finally grew up a bit, and it only took her four hours of film.

For three movies there’s been the classic triangle between Katniss and her two loves, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). It seemed to reached a high point in Part 1 when the brainwashed Peeta almost strangled Katniss, but that tension is allowed to wane in Part 2. Neither Gale nor Peeta is strong enough to match Katniss. When she finally makes her decision between the two it has an anti-climactic, ho-hum feel.

The series had sacrificed characters in ways that were emotionally devastating, beginning with Rue in the first film, and Cinna’s death at the beginning of the Quarter Quell was a gut-punch for the audience that raised the stakes for the games. In Part 2 there are more characters sacrificed, but now it feels calculated and perfunctory, as if screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong simply had a list of who had to die. One death in particular defies logistics and is there only to manipulate the audience. This was disheartening, since Craig wrote Ben Affleck’s excellent film, The Town, and Strong won an Emmy for HBO’s Game Change. More was expected of them.

Splitting the last book into two films was likely motivated by the studio’s bottom line more than having enough time to adapt the book. There are places in both parts where the story drags. While Part 1 was a big hit, it made about $100 million less than Catching Fire. Part 2 may not break the $300 million level that all the other movies achieved.

Successful trilogies such as Lord of the Rings or the original Star Wars leave the audience feeling satisfied and triumphant. Mockingjay Part 2 leaves you feeling relieved it’s over, like when you get out of the dentist’s chair. After all those hours and the investment made in the characters, the payoff is almost non-existent. Very sad.