Monday, July 10, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes … or Four Apes and a Little Lady (in cinemas from 11 July)

In a cruel twist of fate, after the virus outbreak (and the intervening films) the only remaining humans are all North American and hell bent on self destruction, distracted only by their desire to attack the apes who hold a mirror up to fallen humanity. Can Caesar – the chief ape – lead his people to the promised land? And unlike Moses, will he make it all the way? Nature throws some shapes of its own to remind the mammals that other powerful forces are also at play in War for the Planet of the Apes.
“We are not savages”
As someone new to the Planet of the Apes universe, this 140 minute film was a strange mix of a Bourne, some Biblical exodus movies, the Revenant, the Godfather, the Great Escape and Three Men and a Little Lady. Scenes of genocide, forced migration and combat are mixed with a comedy ape who escaped from a zoo.

Writer Mark Bomback and returning director Matt Reeves through an awful lot at the script: resistance, fortitude, sacrifice, revenge, betrayal, slavery, rebellion, ethnic cleansing, not to mention apes on horseback riding through the snow.

Intellectually, there’s a lot going on in War to think about. Arrows can beat bullets just like steam can beat electric in Starlight Express. Emotion is explored as the obsessed Colonel McCullough (played by Woody Harrelson) who is prone to primitive thinking becomes locked into a fight to the death with Caesar (Andy Serkis) who has to battle with avenging his own family loss. Communication within and between species is also studied – spoken and signed – though the loss of speech seems to be unnaturally devastating for some humans.

In one of the sweetest moments in the film a young child (Amiah Miller) slips around unseen in a heavily militarised zone. No one’s looking for her; no one sees her. I find it interesting that her ‘guardian’ ape Maurice, who has perhaps the greatest emotional intelligence of the troop, is played by a woman actor (Karin Konoval).

But oh the questions and loose ends that litter the movie like bodies piled up after an incursion. Where are all the women? What powers the army camp? Why does Caesar speak in English when the apes around him only speak by sign? Who carries the spare bullets?

We need to talk about 3D. I don’t watch usually films in 3D. I think this is only the second time I’ve sat in a darkened cinema while wearing dark plastic shades. We’re very used to capturing images on smart phones where nearly everything in the frame is in focus. The world is flat unless you use macro lenses or fiddle with the settings a lot more than the average user.

Television and film drama relies on depth of field, and pulling focus between nearby and faraway objects. Even news reports use focus to draw your eye from one area of the screen to another as the cameraman helps the narrating journalist paint a story about the topic.

But 3D cinema takes focus to a whole new dimension. No longer can you scan across the wide screen in front of you to take in details. It’s not just bits of the background that are kept out of focus. With a 3D film like War for the Planet of the Apes, often a head or a shoulder of an ape that is in-between you the viewer and the ape that’s talking will be a furry blur too. The director and the camera man literally call the shots.

Overall, I found the 3D experience a huge distraction. Though it works a treat in one scene not too far from the end when Caesar climbs up from ‘under the screen’ onto a metal grill and just appears into view. That was the money shot. But I suspect the 2D version will be a lot less irritating … particularly since War was shot in 2D and converted to 3D post production. (Here’s a 2010 blog post I’ve subsequently found that much better articulates that rant!)

War for the Planet of the Apes will be screened in Movie House cinemas in 2D and 3D (and other big chains) from Tuesday 11 July.

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