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REVIEW: New “Apes” flick a great movie… until it isn’t

The Art of Nerding Out

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Did you guys ever have a disappointing Christmas? I’m talking a holiday season where the weeks leading up to Christmas are an amazing build-up full of family, friends, love and magic. You wake up Christmas morning, salivate over the huge stacks of gifts that gets piled in front of you, then tear them open … and all you get was socks and underwear.

Ever have a Christmas like that?

That’s a lot like the experience of “War for the Planet of the Apes”.

“Apes” finds protagonist Caesar (Andy Sirkus) trying to hide his simian followers from humans who want to wipe them out. This brings Caesar into conflict with The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a soldier bent on killing all apes to preserve the human race. When captured, Caesar must decide between revenge and leading his people to a new home.

The plot, the events that happen in “Apes”, is pretty simple. But the story, or what the characters are trying to accomplish, is more nuanced and complex. Philosophical themes running the gamut from the politics of war to what it means to be kind, are explored. When all is said and done, the “war” in “War for the Planet of the Apes” turns out to be a war for Caesar’s soul.

“Apes” accomplishes it’s storytelling through some of the most amazing character facial animation I’ve ever seen in a movie. The filmmakers rely on many long, lingering close-ups full of subtle emoting. And you forget that these performances are coming from characters the are made up of pixels instead of flesh and blood.

Then again, these performances are only possible because of stellar work from the cast. Sirkus gives a phenomenal performance as Caesar. His work has to be big enough to come through the CGI but subtle enough that it doesn’t feel cheesy. And he nails it. The same can be said for Steve Zahn, who plays Bad Ape, the movie’s comedy relief. These are virtuoso performances that just happen to be coming from computer generated apes.

I can’t move on from the cast without mentioning Harrelson as The Colonel. Harrelson goes full-on Colonel Kurtz from “Apocalypse Now”. His motivations are easy to understand, and while he’s overzealous in his pursuit of his goals, he never crosses the line into cartoonish territory.

Director Matt Reeves orchestrates all the elements of cinema to create a tense, gripping story that holds your interest even though most of the movie is dialogue scenes. But when it’s time for action, Reeves stitches together some amazing set pieces.

It all works so well. Until it doesn’t.

No way to get around this: the last 20 minutes or so of this movie is about as satisfying as a cheesecake made out of packing peanuts and wood glue. I don’t want to get too spoiler-iffic, so I’m not going to go into details. All I’ll say is that after building to a crescendo and watching Caesar struggle to win the day, the movie ends in the cheapest, easiest and most convenient way possible. It’s as if the writers got tired of writing the script and decided to just end it instead of writing a proper finale. It’s extremely frustrating because the rest of the movie is so great. “Apes” deserved better than it gets.

Like a Christmas of socks and underpants, “War for the Planet of the Apes” finishes with a whimper instead of a bang. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the build-up isn’t worth experiencing. “Apes” gives you plenty to think about and features fantastic visual work and acting. It’s a cut above the other action-all-the-time blockbusters and deserves to be seen on a big screen.

4 Indy Fedoras out of 5

MPAA Rating: PG-13