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War for the Planet of the Apes

Matt Reeves, 2017

In a post-apocalyptic future, the leader of a colony of sapient apes sets out to get vengeance on the human militia that attacked his home.

A spot of graffiti glimpsed late in the film draws extra attention to War...'s most immediately recognisable influence, but it really does just drive home the paradox that makes the Apes prequels some of the most interesting contemporary blockbusters and yet somehow kind of boring as well. There's certainly something to be said for the go-for-broke audacity of its premise that doubles down hard on the already-dim view of humanity seen in the previous installments, ditching the sympathetic human characters of Rise... and Dawn... in order to pit its simian leads against a cult-like battalion of human soldiers led by an implacable commander (Woody Harrelson) who shows no mercy to those he considers a threat. Once things get personal between him and protagonist ape Caesar (Andy Serkis), what follows is a remarkably bleak excuse for a PG-13 tentpole blockbuster that dares to push its plot and characters to the edge in a tale of vengeance, genocide, and what it really means to be human or (much more importantly) ape. Of course, what the film's blockbuster status is able to confer in terms of technical scope is also countered by the ways in which it does occasionally defer to four-quadrant limitations; the most obvious example of this is the inclusion of Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), whose role as a gormless and funny-looking comic relief makes sense in the middle of such a grim film but can prove a little too distracting as a result.

It is to War...'s credit that it is able to either keep these tentpole concessions to a minimum or at least do a somewhat acceptable job of folding them into its bigger picture, and what a bigger picture it is. Though there's no denying that it wears its main influences on its sleeve, it's certainly proved capable of expanding upon the series' core themes regarding systemic injustice and its varied effects on the individuals who either suffer or prosper because of it. The material here is strong enough that one may even worry that the presence of computer-generated apes comes dangerously close to trivialising the sensitive matters that the film wishes to address (with many scenes invoking images associated with institutional slavery or death camps), especially if one can reasonably expect a film of this nature to conclude with a generically bombastic third-act spectacle. The same goes for when the narrative skews a little too close to unfortunate clichés even in the name of its bigger picture, which is borne out by some fairly loose pacing during its first half. Even so, War is still a marvel in the company of the year's other big franchise installments, inviting its fair share of comparisons but still doing a decent job of standing alone. Michael Giacchino's haunting end-credits music still echoes in my mind as I type this, and not without good reason.