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War for the Planet of the Apes

Year: 2017
Production Co: Chernin Entertainment
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Matt Reeves
Writer: Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Terry Notary, Amiah Miller, Steve Zahn, Karen Konival, Toby Kebbel, Judy Greer

One of the most well made and least talked-about aspects of the rebooted Apes franchise is how the conflict at the centre of it isn't a simple apes-vs-humans tale. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, heroes Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) found themselves allies, with their antagonists – the ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) and human military commander Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) – both warlike facsimiles of each other.

At its heart, the series might be a lightly veiled metaphor for racism – how there's hatred and good and bad within and between every race (species, in this case) and that the answer is for us all to just accept our different ways, to live and let live.

War for the Planet of the Apes expands further on the theme, in several scenes that pit ape against ape and have among the most touching sequences in the whole series as Caesar and his companions take in a mute human girl, Nova (Amiah Miller).

Caesar is still mostly peaceable, prepared to fight to the death to defend his home and family but more prepared to turn tail and run from it to ensure the survival of his species.

Not long after the movie opens that's just what the apes plan to do. When a rogue platoon finds their stronghold and attacks, they learn it's because an unhinged military leader, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) wants to end apedom.

Scouts report back that they've found a potential new home in the desert beyond the forest, so Caesar and his top lieutenants – orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and aged chimp Rocket (Terry Notary) – are planning to move out when the Colonel and his men return and attack, killing those closest to Caesar.

He orders everyone else to the desert while he returns to the coast alone to exact revenge, Maurice and Rocket disobeying his orders to accompany him – partly to support their leader and partly because they're worried he's becoming consumed with hate and vengeance like Koba was.

They meet Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a young chimp who's fended for himself alone and learned the full power of speech and a sickly human girl (Amiah Miller) after killing her father in a firefight, and set off for The Colonel's seaside base.

Once there, the gang is horrified to see the entire ape community has been intercepted and imprisoned during their escape, forced into slave labour to build a defensive wall.

During the Colonel and Caesar's 'Bond and villain' moments, we learn what's going on in the last remnants of the human world. The virus that wiped out so much of humanity is mutating, causing sufferers to lose the power of speech (which explains Nova's silence), and the Colonel knows it means one thing. While apes continue to ascend, the human race is losing the one thing that has always set it apart, language, and that means a descent back into bestial primitivism.

Before that happens The Colonel is determined to wipe the apes out, but before he can do that he has to defend against the attack the rest of the armed forces are launching to depose him – hence the wall.

From captivity, Caesar has to co-ordinate and execute a bold escape plan for his entire tribe with the help of Maurice, Rocket, Nova and Bad Ape, setting in motion the climatic battle that will decide the fate of the planet.

The action scenes are great and well staged and after expanding the digital toolset that creates believable digital characters based on motion capture in the last installment, the visual effects that bring Caesar, Maurice and the rest of the apes to life are absolutely seamless.

But there's a lot more to like about War for the Planet of the Apes than what you expect. The soundtrack of the original series is an artefact from another time, when the sounds of experimental rock music were everywhere and orchestral movie scores made popular by Star Wars weren't in fashion yet.

So when writer/director Matt Reeves and composer Michael Giacchino (riding very high these days because of films like Jurassic World and Rogue One) include a couple of weird, primeval musical soundscapes, it's both a nice throwback to the Charlton Heston original and a bridge to the classic series.

That goes for the narrative too. As the 1968 original tells us, the apes eventually made their home in the desert, the whole coastal area now The Forbidden Zone, and it's here that Taylor (Heston) and his crewmates crash thousands of years in the future.

The human race has indeed devolved into an animal state, having lost the power of speech and surviving by hunting and gathering. Fans of the original will also note that little Nova is named after the bearskin bikini babe played by Linda Harrison that Heston hooks up with in the original.

As The Colonel, Harrelson gives a good performance in a pretty thankless role (megalomaniacal military leader with an excess of personality and an unshakable code), and he doesn't overstay his welcome. Rather than standing across from Caesar with the final battle raging all around them like we've seen a million times, the denouement of the Colonel's character both makes sense for the story and surprises you.

There was never any indication the Apes reboot was intended as only a trilogy – plenty of other blockbuster franchises around right now have gone on way too long (looking at you, Transformers: The Last Knight) – but War rounds out a self-enclosed story with a beginning, middle and end very nicely.

So where to from here? With the third Spider-man series in a decade and a half hitting cinemas as I write this, it's never too soon to reboot a franchise. Or maybe, after War so successfully bridges the gap to it, they're getting ready to completely remake the original series. Either way, reviews called this the best film of the trilogy, so we likely haven't seen the last of the Apes yet.

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