Often with decent directors it can take a few movies to figure out their style. For what we know from Matt Reeves previous three films Cloverfield, Let Me In, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and his latest follow-up War for the Planet of the Apes is that he often films behind the action. With a methodically slow pace nothing ever comes up front to be explained later. Things happen for a reason and the reason always comes first. Reeves lives for the build up rather than the actual payoff such as War’s best scene when our hero Caesar (a wholly committed and memorable screen performance in Andy Serkis) reasons why the crazy Commander (Woody Harrelson also good) wants to build a wall and make the chimps pay for it. Their back and forth tête-à-tête philosophizing where apes and humans intersect is a series highlight as is usually the case. This makes for a more memorable scene than the actual finale battle sequence. As in War like the more satisfying Dawn, the movie focuses on interpersonal relationships to generate emotional and dramatic tension only there isn’t quite enough of it. Not much on the surface happens in War which makes the title a disappointing misnomer.
Instead the War going on is a more ideological one. I think because critics aren’t used to seeing thematic material supplied by visual motifs delivered with state of the art effects they give great pause and praise. The Apes on-screen here provide visual emphasis and movement over traditional dialogue allowing the series style developed from Dawn stick out from other blockbusters. To me War is a less impressive (and expensive) Dawn retread and I didn’t even like Dawn. What keeps the film afloat despite its lackluster story and slow pace are the director’s grasp of film school fundamentals and support from a great score (Michael Giacchino was awake for this one), cinematography, effects and acting. Woody Harrelson is a much bigger improvement over Gary Oldman as the chief antagonist and Andy Serkis gives his best performance but shall be overlooked due to digital effects hiding most of his face.
‘The face of nature’ is for War and the rebooted series its strongest thematic point. Faceless bodies of what were once living humans are erased by time in the snow reflecting the fears of the crazed Colonel, played by Harrelson with a heart of darkness inspiration. A faceless doll carried by a girl taken in by the apes offers a question of what humanity might become now that it is impacted by a virus that renders them slow and unable to speak. And who is Caesar as the face of these apes as he struggles to identify himself now that his second in command is gone, and what questions does his impact pose for the rest of humanity? That last bit is never answered, instead like the last film Reeves opts to skip over a dramtically compelling part of the mythos. It seems that the director made the film he wanted to make and should be respected for such, but it isn’t the Apes film I came to see.
Another baffling thought I had during this film was how on earth a movie executive would continue to fund an intellectually driven film such as this one? Doing a $150 million dollar tent pole film with only a little action even when the last film made over $700 million dollars and this one cost $20 million less is still an unpaid gamble. This is an additional lesson in studio etiquette from Matt Reeves seeing as how his film lucked into an extra year of production, unheard of in terms of well doing films. Compare this to Fox contemporary Josh Trank, whose F4ntastic turned out a critical and commercial bomb after its budget was cut, hackened by editing and its release date moved up. Its sequel was originally supposed to come out on this day. Was it worth it?
Rating: So how does the series rank? Rise > Dawn > War for my money and entertainment, however intellectually this is the strongest film and craft wise Dawn is the best, I guess that’s what makes it a strong trilogy. / C+
FilmGamer Continuum: +1
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