By Spencer Bowen
Do you like monkeys? Do you like war movies? Then do I have the film for you!
While I definitely love chimps, “War for the Planet of the Apes” wasn’t made for people like me and my dad who agree that most everything would be improved with the addition of more monkeys. It’s a movie for anyone who likes really good movies. It’s remarkable because it’s excellent and it’s doubly remarkable because it’s excellent while focusing on intelligent monkeys.
The critical response? A cool 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, good for No. 10 on the TomatoMeter’s “Top Movies of 2017” list (ahead of “Spider Man,” “Coco,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and, notably, “The Lego Batman Movie”). You don’t have to cherry pick at all to find mainstream critics lavishing praise on a movie pretty explicitly about battling monkeys: “The best summer blockbuster in years, a smart, thoughtful, confrontational and challenging allegory for a world run amok,” says the Detroit News. “A film that feels newly minted, and daringly conceived on an epic scale. It’s as if no one bothered to tell the filmmakers that Hollywood doesn’t do grandeur anymore,” says the Wall Street Freaking Journal. “It may have the body of an action film, but it has the soul of an art-house drama and the brains of a political thriller,” adds The Washington Damn Post.
The script was phenomenal, Shakespearean in scale and Biblical in resonance. “War” isn’t very subtle about its Hamlet, Lear, Moses, and King David references, but does it matter? This is the third movie in a rebooted prequel series about smart apes. Are you bemoaning the lack of smart SciFi in 2017, except maybe Harrison Ford growling his way through “Blade Runner 2049”? Think again.
It’s not a novel idea to use non-humans as the vessel to reconnect viewers with their own humanity, but this is the first movie featuring non-humans out-acting humans. You might think that’s an indictment of Amiah Miller’s Nova (the child) or Woody Harrelson’s Colonel, but it isn’t at all. In fact, Woody Harrelson is kind of great. He could’ve easily been 100% pure white man evil, but he’s a villain you understand and listen to and sort of root for even though you can’t root for him because he’s heinous (paging Kylo Ren). And Miller does at least well enough to secure many future years of “Young Cosette” credits on Broadway. But neither can stand in the way of Maurice, the lovable and wise oversized orangutan, played by Karin Konoval (he’s so wise and nurturing because he’s played by a woman!!!!!!), who ripped my still-beating heart out of my chest with this exchange about Nova:
Caesar: We cannot take her, Maurice.
Maurice: I understand. But I cannot leave her.
It pains me to say it, but Steve Zahn was even better than Maurice as comic relief / moral backbone Bad Ape, a wizened ape who learned to speak by listening to humans at a zoo.
And they’re both outdone by Andy Serkis who delivers his best-ever motion capture performance (yes, I’ve seen “Lord of the Rings”).
The Oscars love to define a trend, to celebrate what is novel and noteworthy in art. Remember “The Artist”? Remember “Slumdog Millionaire”? Remember “Crash”? These films went about the craft of moviemaking slightly differently and helped define new trends to come. What all three lacked were tight, coherent, affecting plots that would’ve made the movie great without a silent movie gimmick or a Bollywood gimmick or being kind of edgy for 2006.
“War” has both substance and novelty. It features the first motion capture performance to ever make me think “wow, this should receive an acting nomination.” And why not? Andy Serkis is redefining the art. His performance is changing the very fabric of what a movie is and can be, all layered on top of a mashup of the Odyssey and Exodus.
Andy Serkis isn’t going to win Best Actor. He won’t even be nominated. And that really sucks. A field that will likely include Tom Hanks, Gary Oldman, and Daniel Day-Lewis will be tough for many deserving candidates to sneak into.
“War” will probably get a CGI or sound mixing nomination. Great. But the best movie I saw in 2017 deserves more, partly because it wasn’t just well-done. It’s amazing that a project like this can be done at all. “War” was palpable and emotional and striking. That’s the wonder movies are supposed to create, right?