Thursday, July 13, 2017

An Alternate Reality #17: I saw the Apes at War...

Matt Reeves' retelling of “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” wasn’t through, as we now know, for “War for…” takes elements of the ’73, so-called "final chapter" to a new, belligerent level. As with the original-cycle entry, this parallel “Apes” chapter determines whether simians or humans will dominate Earth. This time, however, we don’t have Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus standing in lieu of Severn Darden's Kolp, but instead Woody Harrelson’s Colonel McCullough. And man, oh man, is the ol' Colonel ever a determined bastard.

Considering what’s at stake in director/writer Reeves' sequel (coauthored by Mark Bomback), one can’t fault the military man, any more than one can fault Caesar (Andy Serkis) for amplifying the adversity. As in real-life, this alternate-reality take of an established alternate-reality history, demonstrates how explosive opposing sides can be. Under the Colonel, however, the humans appear on the upswing, though perhaps not for long. An onslaught of desires, contempt and bloodshed awaits both ends, with an unexpected faction ultimately entering to turn the story on its head. 

“War”, in this respect, lives up to its title. Even in its gentlest parts (and oh, there are many and so lovingly blessed by Michael Giacchino's sweet score), it stays hard-hitting. It honorably lifts “Battle’”s most confrontational scenes, but also pays homage to "Apocalypse Now"; “To Hell and Back”; “Hacksaw Ridge"; "A Walk in the Sun"; plus any number of John Wayne pictures, war or western based. 

At "War'"s start, we learn that Caesar has molded his apes into a well-oiled, fighting machine. The noble chimp doesn't wish hostilities to rise, but nor does he want his followers to be left unprepared in the event of attack. No matter how hard he tries, though, his people gain casualties and unfortunately, those close to Caesar's heart fall victim to the enemy. 

Despite this, the prospect of peace isn't entirely off the table, and its symbolism comes via a human girl (Amiah Miller), whom the apes discover along the way. She comes to be named Nova (a gracious nod to Linda Harrison's shapely character). Caesar, thanks to Maurice (Karin Konoval)'s insistence, comes to care for the lass, just as he does those of his kind. He's a well rounded "emperor", after all: one with an open mind, a caring heart, but at the same time, one who acknowledges the risk in growing soft, regardless of Nova's contagious innocence. 

Alas, for all his noble intent, Caesar soon finds himself in the Colonel's clutches. The two have an opportunity to talk, negotiate, but due to the Colonel's contempt, the fires of animosity get stoked ever higher. 

This is by no means surprising. Whether one likes it or not, tensions regarding who-rules-what are unavoidable, with war generally the result. Though this idea might unsettle many a millennial, it does appear to be the film's predominate theme and is a common part of existence, no matter what the "reality". In other words, that a peaceful outcome appears unattainable in "War" is realistic and makes the circumstances more credible throughout. 

As fans know, this no-nonsense approach has become an "Apes" tradition and can be found, to some extent or another, in any of the adventures. The Colonel may be insanely hardheaded, but that he holds his ground only sharpens the tale's merciless sting. The Colonel's stance allows others, on either side of the coin, to test their mettle, even if their reasoning sometimes proves as faulty as their hearts prove courageous. 

Because of this, "War'"s greatest strength lies in its purposeful participants. Isn't characterization, after all, the ticket to any quality drama? If we can't identify with (or for villainy's sake, resent) characters, why bother engaging in their journey? "War" makes us care. 

Beyond dispute, Caesar and the Colonel set the standard for this, but they're not alone in their influence. The eccentric (if not occasionally Gollum-like) Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) becomes the movie's scene stealer, just as Serkis' famous character had become in Peter Jackson's Tolkien films: quirky, charismatic and for a brief time, enigmatic. When push comes to shove, however, he does prove to be an asset to Caesar, and more than any other character in the film, epitomizes its nervous optimism and continual grasp for a satisfying resolution, to the point where one wonders why Reeves didn't introduce him sooner into the saga. 

Regardless of its strength of characterization, many will still debate whether "War" is the franchise's most profound chapter: whether in comparison to Pierre Boulle's "Monkey Planet"; the original theatrical series; or its alternate offshoots. However, no matter what its rank in the grand scheme, "War" stays tight and focused throughout: an admirable quality for any imagi-tale.

I only wish more films could march to the same beat. Too much hollow talk, just like too much hollow action, only goes so far, but identifiable characters and scenarios can sustain a saga for decades. I imagine that's why "Apes" has never slipped from the culture's collective consciousness. It's why its latest chapter (along with the film's contained archetypal personalities and "God damn you all to hell" destruction) won't be its last, which leads me to declare with war-ravaged gusto--Hail Caesar! Hail Bad Ape, the Colonel, Maurice, dear Nova and all the rest! Hail forever and always the incomparable Planet of the Apes! We've already gained much from this franchise, but we've so much more yet to learn, as "War" so generously exemplifies. 

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