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Death by prequelitis (a War for the Planet of the Apes review)

It’s summer blockbuster season. Because of a random and frankly insane number of convenient coincidences throughout the 1970s and 80s, the movie industry is structured such that the summer has a veritable cornucopia of action blockbusters. And now, thirty years later, with the advent of the cinematic universe era, there’s just even more… I dunno… blocks to bust. And, in this era where blockbusters are risk adverse, that means that cinematic universes have to be based on proven properties… either adaptations of stories from other media, or remaking or rebooting older films. So in effect, basically the same blocks are being busted over and over again.

Of course the problem with reboots is that if the film is popular enough for anyone to care about it, then it’s popular enough for fans to be upset by any changes you make to the mythos. So this leaves you with two choices to extend the franchise, either tell a new story about the future of the world (which really sometimes makes one wonder why a sequel is existing and not just a new story) OR try to explain how the world of the original film came into play with a prequel. And this is where we are now.

The problem with prequels is that even though there’s a built in audience, there’s often necessarily no stakes in the film. It’s not there can’t be a narrative arc… it’s just that this is often compromised by the fact that the story needs to get to the point where the original film started. The path is preordained and can’t happen organically. I actually don’t conceptually hate the Star Wars prequels. I think it’s fascinating that an intergalactic federation of planets can fall into disarray and become corrupted by a single individual over a dispute about trade tariffs and campaign finance reform. That’s just amazing shit! I want more of that! But the problem is that story never got to breathe and develop and become it’s own thing because it was only told within the context of trying to make sure a doofus kid got welded inside of a 70s disco samurai costume and making sure that we had plenty of time for battles with laser swords. And that’s sort of the thing with Star Wars. The more prequels they make and the more packed the universe gets, the more that just sort of HAS to happen in order to not violate the lore. It was a problem with the prequels. It was a problem with Rogue One and I’m sure it will be a problem with Han Solo.

And that’s where the Planet of the Apes movies are now. Honestly, I’m not really a huge fan of the franchise. I don’t hate it or anything. I like them actually. But it’s not like its Star Wars. And that’s the key thing.

If you’re a Planet of the Apes fan, you’re going to love War for the Planet of the Apes. Because, well there’s a lot of apes warring on the planet in it. It’s going a pretty strong, but pretty standard Jesus-myth story going on. And it’s got apes… warring… on the planet. Really that’s about it. It was enjoyable for what it was and in fact, I think they did about as well with that as you could possibly do, but that’s the whole premise of the film. There are apes and they are at war with the humans and we need to retrofit this back into the rest of the narrative.

And that retrofitting happens through what I guess I’d have to say are SPOILERS for this paragraph (so if you really care skip to the next one). This film makes it undoubtedly clear that it is a prequel to the 1968 film. We find out why Caesar isn’t there. We find out why there are very few humans. We find out why they can’t talk. Both of these are due to them contracting a mutation of the virus from the first movie. It’s done killing people as it did in the second movie. Now it’s just making them primitive and mute. It’s unnamed, but since it’s function is pretty much JUST to reduce the human race to the state of the 1968 film, I’m pretty sure that it’s a manifestation of prequelitis. We find out how Cornelius got to be the top ape. We meet a cute little 12-year-old girl named Nova who will apparently grow up to fuck Charlton Heston one day (which, is actually kind of creepy when you think about it). There’s a lot of “oh, I see where they’re going with this” in this movie. And if you can connect the dots, it works. Mostly… there’s still a little bit of weirdness to Nova existing… because it totally is… “oh look, this little girl is going to grow up to be a sex slave… but ok I guess…”

But if you can’t connect those dots some of those things, then some of them really don’t make any sense. And really the basis for most of it was decided in the last movie anyway. This was really just flushing out details. Even then some things don’t really work, but that’s mostly because the this movie is still in modern day and the 1968 film is 3978… but you know, maybe Charlton Heston’s clock was just broken or something.

The story is fine, as far as Jesus-myths go. Caesar has progressed to the point where he is essentially an ape messiah, more of a Moses than a Jesus really, who is trying to deliver his people to a promised land. After that the story mostly writes itself. There are a lot of characters and not really much reason to care about any of them individually. Who the specific apes are is irrelevant. The film is more about what is the meaning of humanity. The message relies on the fact that they are apes, because without their Otherness being readily apparent through their non-humaness there really isn’t much to tie things together.

I did have a little bit of a problem with the CGI. Six years ago, the reboot of the franchise was such a singular achievement that people were trying to argue that Andy Serkis‘s motion capture performance as Caesar deserved an Oscar. I never thought it was quite there, but I did recognize how amazing he seemed as an emotive digital presence in the company of real-life actors. This film didn’t seem to quite get there. Serkis was good, but not only did it feel like the technology didn’t progress, it almost felt like a step backwards. Because so much of the cast was computer generated, they start to become sort of evident. I was very aware of them. An uncanny valley thing starts to happen where I start to notice all the things that AREN’T real about them instead of how real they are. If they were less realistic (like Transformers or Groot for instance) I’d actually be more inclined to be forgiving of them. But their realism actually sort of makes them seem … broken sometimes.

That said, it’s not BAD. Again, this is definitely a movie for fans of the franchise. If you’re into the idea of intelligent apes… you know.. warring… on the planet… well, this might be for you. If you’re not, it’s kind of ok, you probably won’t hate yourself… you might get a little bored at times.

★★¾☆☆ (2.75 out of 5 stars)

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