Film Review – War for the Planet of the Apes

If I thought that Dunkirk was “Grim & Bleak”, it may have had something to do with seeing War for the Planet of the Apes immediately beforehand.

While Apes is set in a grim and bleak environment, the film is absolutely brimming with emotion (an element I found lacking in Dunkirk) thanks to incredibly nuanced performances from the versatile cast members, now well-seasoned in motion capture.

Andy Serkis returns as head chimp Caesar, with Karin Konoval reprising her role as Maurice, the wise and benevolent Bornean orangutan who is Caesar’s adviser and third-in-command as well as teacher and overseer for the tribe, and Terry Notary appearing again as Rocket, a common chimpanzee who is Caesar’s second-in-command.

Twentieth Century Fox’s “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

In War for the Planet of the Apes, the third chapter of the critically acclaimed blockbuster franchise, Caesar and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless Colonel. After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind. As the journey finally brings them face to face, Caesar and the Colonel are pitted against each other in an epic battle that will determine the fate of both their species and the future of the planet.

I’m very fond of the original series of films, believing they deliver riveting stories and exceptional practical effects. In our modern era of CGI this and that, the lengths that the Apes filmmakers go to in order to craft realistic, believable charcters is highly commendable.

These observations from the film’s production notes illuminate how seriously the participants take their roles of inhabiting primates on screen….

“Before production began, actor and choreographer Terry Notary convened what became affectionately known as Ape Camp, where actors submerse themselves in ape behavior, fine-tuning their movements, rhythms and timing. Veteran cast and newcomers alike had to confront the new reality for the apes – that they are increasingly upright creatures losing their wild form and seeing the world anew.

Director Matt Reeves is in awe of Konoval saying “Her ability to bring authentic life to Maurice is just amazing. She has a very spiritual connection to orangutans that she has developed over these three films, and her instincts just constantly amazed me.”

Konoval herself says, “Orangutans have a very strong integrity for who they are and I feel that is who Maurice is at heart. He’s very observant, and if he does something, he means it. I think he is Caesar’s conscience. He’s been his advisor for a long time and his commitment and devotion to Caesar are complete.”

Though she is no stranger to playing Maurice, Konoval has continued to plunge ever deeper into her discovery of the character. In preparation for War, she spent time with Towan, possibly the world’s oldest living male orangutan, at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. An ape who loved to paint, he gave her a glimpse of how extraordinary and complex non-human primates already are in their private worlds. Sadly, Towan died days after War For The Planet Of The Apes finished filming.

Konoval recalls what he taught her: “He gave me the inner Maurice,” she says. “I could never say thank you enough to Towan. The chance to observe orangutans and get to know them and some of the orangutan conservation community has been one of the most glorious gifts I’ve ever been given. Towan’s name translates as ‘Master’ and he was that. When he looked into you, there was nothing that could compare to that. And that is what inspires me to find the soul of Maurice.”

In War, Maurice’s soul is pulled in an unexpected direction when he becomes attached to the orphaned human child, Nova, connecting with her beyond words. “I’ve had such a great time as a human getting to know orangutans, it was wonderful to flip that around and portray an orangutan forming a close relationship with a human,” Konoval muses. “Playing Maurice has been an increasingly rich journey.”

Andy Serkis notes that Konoval’s portrait of Maurice has been a spark for how he plays Caesar. “Karin puts all her heart and soul into Maurice – and she brings such in-depth knowledge of ape behavior that it feels so authentic,” he observes. “For her, it’s not about copying an animal, it’s about understanding their inner world, and you realize that is what makes it come alive.”

Actor and accomplished choreographer Terry Notary also returns as Caesar’s right hand man, Rocket, as well as serving as the choreographic trainer for the entire primate cast. Reeves calls Notary “The ape Zen master.” The director continues: “He approaches his work with such joy and passion, it is infectious. Not only has he brought Rocket to beautiful life, but he plays countless apes in the film, and has trained all the cast to move and be as apes. He is a true artist.”

Says Notary of Rocket: “He will always be Caesar’s confidante and best friend. But in this film, I feel he is finding his true purpose in life, which is to keep Caesar safe. Rocket has been through what Caesar is going through in this film and he can be there now to see that Caesar makes it through, to protect him while he is lost.”

The Ape characters are so realistic that they make the two key human faces seem to be the digital creations .

To compensate for being outplayed by his motion capture enhanced castmates, Woody Harrelson as Colonel McCullough plays his role like Marlon Brando as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, and this fact is referenced in the film in unmissable ways.

Karin Konoval, left, and Amiah Miller in Twentieth Century Fox’s “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

Amiah Miller as Nova, a bold and kind mute orphan whom Maurice adopts as his daughter, matches the Apes intensity with her performance and her behaviour helps to define the growing rift between the species.

If there is one performance above all others though that completely steals the film, it would have to Steve Zahn as Bad Ape, a common chimpanzee who lived in Sierra Safari Zoo before the Simian Flu outbreak and was a hermit before joining Caesar’s group.

Bad Ape is just the most exquisite creation, part ET, part Forrest Gump and offers much needed humour in this dark, post apocalyptic tale.

Overall this is a mesmerising piece of modern cinema that begs to be seen on a big screen with a quality sound system. The sound design creeps up on you as the film begins, immersing you in the forest as a platoon of soldiers seeks to infiltrate an Apes base, and from there every single effort from this extraordinary filmmaking team builds on the two previous instalments to take the series to new heights.

4 Stars – “Completely Immersive and Absolutely Stunning”

 

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