Sunday, July 16, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

A weird, inexplicable reticence attenuates the effectiveness of War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeve, 2017).  For some reason, the film makers hesitate to show apes killing humans.  The movie is designed like Spartacus, as an account of a slave rebellion.  Brutally mistreated, the apes seem poised to take their revenge on the humans that have tortured them.  But, at the last minute, the film draws back from the bloody precipice of an ape rebellion.  An implausible third force, and, then, indeed, a fourth agent is summoned to right the wrongs suffered by the poor apes.  (It's like HBO's Westworld -- the show was poised for 13 episodes to depict the bloody rebellion of the robots against their cruel masters.  But it was all tease.  The robot rebellion was short-circuited and the audience didn't get the pay-off which the entire narrative arc had promised.  In HBO's case, delay of the ultimate robot uprising is necessary to motivate another season.  But the reason for denying the audience the climax for which the entire movie has been designed in War for the Planet of the Apes is unclear, even perverse.)

War for the Planet of the Apes is certainly spectacular enough, indeed, even too splendidiferous, I think.  The special effects are jaw-dropping and many of the scenes are exciting and brilliantly filmed.  But the show succumbs, ultimately, to a well-nigh Biblical splendor that congests its arteries and slows everything down to a crawl.  Reeve isn't sure whether he is making a popcorn blockbuster or something with pretensions to greater glory.  In the end, he opts for glory and the film suffers an excess of seriousness.  Bluntly put, the movie is not exactly as fun as a barrel of monkeys.  Much of the narrative is set in a grim concentration camp where apes are tortured, crucified, starved, flogged, and forced to carry great stones from a quarry in a sort of simian version of the concentration camp at Mauthausen with its granite stairs of death.  No one really wants to see a Planet of Apes version of Schindler's List and the concentration camp references are not only tasteless but disturbing -- the animation and effects in this film are so flawless that the violence is not cartoonish at all; rather, it is highly disturbing and some of the torture scenes are hard to watch.  Not content with looting Spielberg and, for that matter, Bridge over the River Kwai, the film indulges itself in an extended and completely humorless parody of Apocalypse Now.  Woody Harrelson plays Kurtz, haranguing the heroic alpha-ape Caesar like a demented Marlon Brando with some of Dennis Hopper's rants thrown in for a good measure.  Again and again, Harrelson's crazy special ops commander has Caesar at gunpoint, but as is the case in all movies of this kind, he choses to stupefy his victim with long speeches as opposed to simply pulling the trigger, an error, of course, for which he and his men will ultimately pay.  Everyone in the movie is avenging a lost child or spouse and so the stakes are high with an intense quotient of bitterness.  You can't laugh at the movie, because it is too solemn and impressively mounted.  But it's also not too much fun.  And, like almost all special effects-driven pictures, two-thirds of the movie is shot in dark, greenish-blue twilight -- clearly there are effects on the margins of what we can see that the film maker doesn't really want us to look at too closely.  But this adds to the film's general miasmic gloom, it's disheartening and cruel darkness. 

One can admire a picture like this, I'm afraid, without liking it too much.  The film is gripping but relentlessly savage and violent.  There's too much torture and cruelty in what is supposed to be matinee movie for children and people seeking two hours respite from the heat and humidity.  The revenge theme is depressing and it is little bit unnerving to be whipped into a blood-lust against one's own species -- an effect that the film achieves, but, then, doesn't really deliver on.  Ultimately, there's just too much here.  Reeves brings in a subplot about a fatal illness that turns people into grunting apes, but without the furry majesty and strength -- I think this derives from the sensitively handled Alzheimer's narrative in the first movie in the trilogy.  Instead of allowing the humans to be slaughtered by the apes, instead, there's a helicopter attack and full frontal assault by the army on Harrelson's compound that is stolen from Coppola's war movie -- the compound has the psychedelic appearance of the bridge to nowhere in the night-time sequence near the end of Apocalypse Now and there is even a bow to Jimi Hendrix on the soundtrack.  And, then, not content with human-on-human carnage, Reeves invokes Exodus and the flooding Red Sea by staging a huge avalanche that wipes out all of the humans -- this is the implausible "fourth agent" that figures in the film's climax.  (Exactly how the apes are saved from the avalanche is unclear to me -- sure, they climb up into big trees, but plenty of huge trees are toppled in the snowy catastrophe that ends the film.  So why were these particular trees spared?)  There are also odd mistakes.  In one scene staged in a rainstorm, the apes' fur is matted and soaking wet.  But the Woody Harrelson's shaved head doesn't have a drop of water on it.  The CGI rain doesn't touch his bald and shining pate.  At the film's end, the apes have escaped to a promised land from which Caesar, their leader will have a Pisgah view of the virgin territory where the simians intend to establish their new Jerusalem.  Somehow, Caesar has crossed a couple hundred miles of desert with an arrow in his side that will finally kill him just as he reaches the ridge overlooking the land of milk and honey.  As he dies in a Michelangelo-style frieze under an ancient bristlecone pine, we see down into the valley -- it's a high altitude lake in the Sierra, probably about 12,000 feet above sea level surrounded by talus slopes and snowy peaks.  Small wretched-looking forests spread upward from the cold-looking lake, maybe one or two acres in extent -- how are the apes going to live in this cold, unforgiving, and high-altitude landscape?  I wanted to like this movie and, in fact, admired much of it -- there is a stunning battle scene in the first couple minutes -- but, ultimately, the movie is too humorless, too violent, and too baroque for its own popcorn-entertainment premises.    

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