Wednesday 12 July 2017

Monkey magic: "War for the Planet of the Apes"

The three recent Planet of the Apes prequels - an admirable mini-cycle initiated by the Brit Rupert Wyatt with 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes and sustained by Cloverfield's Statue of Liberty toppler Matt Reeves through 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to this week's War for the Planet of the Apes - have come to describe a gradual shift in the balance of power between man and monkey. Rise unfolded around a recognisable latter-day San Francisco, a location possessed of human interest enough to generate an unusually substantial subplot charting John Lithgow's retreat into the furthest reaches of Alzheimer's. Dawn, pressing onwards into a world run newly ragged by the aftereffects of an apocalyptic "simian flu" outbreak, was founded on the uneasy tension between the epidemic's survivors and newly emboldened apes with radically different visions for the future: one path through the jungle led towards peaceful co-existence, the other to a bloody assertion of tribal dominance. 

That fork in the road is now long behind us. War, drawing us deeper into the wilds and further away still from the civilisation of that first prequel, opens with a platoon of soldiers (whose helmets bear chalked-on slogans like "Endangered Species" and "Bedtime for Bonzo") fighting a doomed rearguard mission against a supremely well-organised, Vietcong-like troop of primate insurgents led by the returning rebel leader Caesar (mocap master Andy Serkis). If this defeat doesn't quite signal game over for the old humanoid order, it's soon clear we are likely watching its final, desperate throes; that we're not far from where Charlton Heston first entered this story some fifty years ago now becomes apparent back at monkey basecamp, where there's a walk-on - perhaps better: scamper-on - part for a cheeky young tyke named Cornelius.

Although a few, generally ill-fated human interlopers show their faces, we will spend practically the entire two-hour, twenty-minute duration of War embedded among the ape community, witnessing revisionist history unfolding from a distinctly simian point of view: it's possible that upwards of 90% of the key players passing across these frames are to all intents and purposes virtual creations, the evolutionary endpoints of a series that began in broadly analogue territory (remember James Franco, in his labcoat?) and has since passed decisively into the realms of the digital. For some while here, there is wonder - or as close to wonder as modern multiplex cinema can bring us to the wonders of nature itself. 

Motion capture has demonstrably developed in leaps and bounds even in just the five years since Wyatt's film, transporting its programmers and their eventual audience far beyond the jagged troughs and peaks of uncanny valley: these apes not only have intensely expressive extremities (snouts, fur, whiskers; faces that go quiet with thought and come alive again with rage), they've also been configured in such a way as to suggest vividly shifting interior states. It gives the series one especially striking new addition in Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), an oldtimer - bearing a marked resemblance to a simian Robert Duvall - liberated from a zoo to go a touch doolally in isolation; it also allows Reeves to set up and develop an unexpectedly tender relationship between kindly orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and the mute foundling Caesar's band pick up on their travels - a sentimental touch, converted into a strength by careful handling.

The wizardry matters - some might say it's essential to War's cause - because (as in the recent run of Alien prequels) we're getting one of those in transit plots, conceived chiefly to shift interested parties from one point in an established universe to another we will already broadly have been aware of (monkey supremacy; the advent of Chuck). Throughout the film's equally diverting and meandering first half, you can feel Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback riding alongside their apes on horseback, rather looking for the one good purpose or battle that might nudge this timeline on; it helps that the effects team have handed them characters that demand to be marvelled at at length, because those characters really aren't headed anywhere fast. (There is an urge to shout: just knock that Statue over already.)

Eventually, there is an endpoint: a concentration camp-cum-slave plantation cut off from the world beyond by a vast mountain range and presided over by War's one overtly recognisable humanoid - Woody Harrelson as the bulletheaded Colonel. Here is a rogue martinet lording over a private army of grunting, screeching followers; the blurring of distinctions between man and ape is presumably wholly deliberate. Although this less-than-gilded cage provides a welcome narrowing of focus, and brings the alpha-versus-alpha conflict that has been simmering throughout this cycle to a head, the film gets a little bogged down on this spot, waiting for the epochal eruption of hostilities that will spell the end of the world as you and I know it; a monkey prison break, complete with coordinated poop-slinging, provides a welcome pebbledash of humour, but everyone's basically prowling the perimeters until such time as Caesar and the Colonel stop snarling at one another and go directly for the jugular.

In this evolutionary process, then, there have been gains and losses. You can cheer how the 21st century Apes movies have improved upon their occasionally clunky predecessors, in terms of their dramatic and visual sophistication; then again, you might lament how what (even on Wyatt's watch) were brisk, thematically limber B-movies have, under the Reeves regime, swollen into sombrely attenuated post-Nolan statements on man's inhumanity to his fellow species. (Incidentally, Nolan's latest Dunkirk runs to a mere 106 minutes: even he may have had enough of this trend.) War consistently delivers on the spectacle front: the finale involves both a petrochemical explosion and an avalanche, fire and ice, Reeves allowing his VFX wonks - previously caught up in the digital equivalent of grooming their characters for gnats - a belated opportunity to cut loose. Yet the second of these seat-shakers is a wow that serves no narrative purpose; like the Apocalypse Now reference graffitied on the tunnel wall beneath the Kurtzian Harrelson's bolthole, it's more overstatement, whereas at its best the film - and this franchise - has communicated multitudes with small gestures and tiny, insinuating shifts in perspective. No monkeying around.

War for the Planet of the Apes is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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