There is currently a wing-ding of an argument among scientists regarding nonhuman primates and speech.
Some believe ape species don’t have the physical capacity to speak. Others believe they just haven’t gotten around to it, or don’t see the point, and, from watching cable news, who can blame them?
Hollywood, of course, believes fervently in talking apes and has turned them into a major profit center — the latest iteration is the trilogy that culminates in War for the Planet of the Apes, a movie in which panicked humans are gradually losing the power to speak, and emboldened apes are gradually gaining it.
This has caused the human war on apes to grow more desperate and deranged. A military madman (Woody Harrelson) has launched a campaign of punitive extermination aimed at the apes, whose leader, Caesar (a motion-captured Andy Serkis), has led them deep into the forest in a vain attempt to avoid confrontation with the violent, unhinged race of men.
Chrome-domed Harrelson is the latest homage to Apocalypse Now and Brando’s Col. Kurtz (we glimpse graffiti in the movie referencing Ape-Pocalypse Now): He rules over his remote outpost like a bonkers warlord and has constructed a concentration camp for captured apes, used as slave labor to reinforce his fort’s defenses.
Caesar arrives with a small contingent of apes who look for a way to free the prisoners, and deal, once and for all, with the colonel and his small army.
The rest of the story — the movie runs an ape-ic 2 hours and 20 minutes — is best left unspecified, not least because War for the Planet of the Apes actually has one. The special effects in the movie are used to create convincing ape-like characters, and they in turn leverage a complex story that builds to a coherent conclusion, helped along by an unusually imaginative and effective score by Michael Giacchino.
This is happily against the grain of the modern blockbuster, wherein story gives way to a grand finale of effects that overwhelms and obliterates what’s left of the narrative.
In War for the Planet of the Apes, the motion-capture techniques that blend physical performance and animation have reached an impressive level, especially in facial close-ups that have the actors (Steve Zahn, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval) and animators collaborating on subtle emotions. At this point I actually see no technical barrier to Andy Serkis playing Woody Harrelson. Harrelson, incidentally, is one of (gulp) only two unanimated actors in the movie with a major speaking part.
The contributions of the actors now blend more seamlessly with the animation to create digital characters, and the characters are being integrated more successfully and believably into the landscape — director Matt Reeves works on a big widescreen canvas of sweeping, picturesque exteriors.
They suggest a natural world gradually reclaiming itself. The movie nods in the direction of interspecies solidarity, but in Reeves’ sardonic summation, nothing in the life of men becomes us like the leaving it.
The War for the Planet of the Apes
Directed by Matt Reeves. With Andy Serkis, Steve Zahn, Woody Harrelson, Terry Notary and Karin Konoval. Distributed by 20th Century Fox.
Running time: 140 minutes.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence).
Playing at: area theaters.