Review Round-Up: War for the Planet of the Apes, Split, and Dunkirk

Posted: August 4, 2017 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

Written by Daniel Simpson

War for the Planet of the Apesapesposter

I remember seeing the trailers for Rise of the Planet of the Apes and thinking it might be a fun, if unnecessary remake. Boy how far we’ve come. Rise would turn out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of 2011 and it’s sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, held a pretty firm spot in my top ten films for 2014. Somewhat shockingly, the second Planet of the Apes reboot has quietly risen as the most consistent and interesting blockbuster series in recent memory. And so, we come to War for the Planet of the Apes, the conclusion of the trilogy, which sees Ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) faced with the responsibility of protecting his species from human soldiers. This resolve is put to the test when an attack by the humans pushes Caesar to his limits and has him seeking vengeance on the colonel (Woody Harrelson) responsible.

One of the things this series gained by bringing in director Matt Reeves for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was a richer visual style and that continues to be the case with War. The film’s aesthetic is dominated by coldness, whether it’s the muted colours of the forest the apes inhabit, the steel constructs of military facilities, or the snowfall which comes to blanket much of the landscape. Similarly, the action scenes only occur sparingly, and when they do there is generally a level of restraint to how they are filmed and edited despite the insanity of the battles. The results are scenes which really dwell on violence and the loss of life. This, in conjunction with film’s visual style leads to a movie imbibed with dread. There is an anxiety at the heart of War for the Planet of the Apes as the situation at hand is often quite bleak and is faced appropriately. Granted, this tone is occasionally shattered by some comic relief which emerges in the film’s second half, namely from a character called Bad Ape. I suppose I’m glad all of the comedy was relegated to just one character rather than spilling out to other areas of the film, but at the same time such broad comedy definitely clashed with the film’s somber and serious tone.

The film has some other issues too. The first third has some clunky exposition to make sure everyone is up to speed with the series thus far (including some cringey opening text) and the ending also sweats bullets to tie everything up. The actual conclusion to the story does seem fitting and hits emotionally very well, but the path to get there definitely feels forced. Similarly, there are some smaller moments throughout the film which are interesting in theory but are a little rushed in practice. But perhaps it’s best to not get lost in the little picture, the big picture of this series from day one has been Caesar and Andy Serkis once again knocks it out of the park. He so fully inhabits Caesar that at this point I barely think about the mocap and all of the technical work that goes into bringing this character to life. All I see is Caesar, and this time around we really feel the character’s burden and vulnerability. Woody Harrelson also makes for a strong villain and is easily the most compelling human character of the trilogy. His colonel is a ruthless bastard, but also someone who acts from a place of conviction and the scene where he explains himself to Caesar is one of the film’s best.

War for the Planet of the Apes has some script issues but the sheer confidence of the filmmaking does a lot to blow past these limitations. Shot to shot, I was enamored by simply looking at the film and I was also completely absorbed by the film’s oppressive tone. The film tells an engaging story with great characters and while it isn’t as thematically substantial as the 1968 original, Reeves is able to evoke greater themes through his visual choices. The movie isn’t perfect, it probably isn’t my favourite of the rebooted Apes trilogy in fact, but it does a hell of a lot right and is definitely worthy of your time.

A-

Splitsplit_ver2_xlg

M. Night Shymalan’s supposed comeback is not quite the slam dunk you might have heard. Split is still mired by a lot of the flaws which have marked the director’s recent work, perhaps most notably some wonky dialogue and bizarre ass delivery. There’s nothing at the level Marky Mark’s “What? Nooo” from The Happening, but all the same there’s a lot of talk here which doesn’t sound like exchanges between human beings. There’s also some plot holes, conveniences, and the film’s ending does mitigate the psychological tension. The post-credits reveal is interesting in theory, but the presentation is pretty lame and such a reveal also robs Split a climax of its own.

What the film does have going in it’s favour is James McAvoy, who gives a pretty bonkers performance and is generally a lot of fun to watch. This is big, showy acting in a place where it’s entirely appropriate and he elevates the film a lot. I was also at least moderately interested in Split to continue watching it even if I never really cared for where it went.

C-

Dunkirkdunkirk-poster

From the outset, it seemed like Dunkirk was Christopher Nolan’s effort at making a more standard prestige picture. War films are a well established genre among respected Hollywood cinema and it seemed a smart place where Nolan could make something a bit more conventional while still keeping with the seriousness and dignity which has defined his career. As it turns out, Dunkirk is very much a “Chris Nolan movie” and carries over a lot of his standard elements. Perhaps the most important element is Nolan’s affinity for non-chronological storytelling and time condensing/expanding. The evacuation of Dunkirk involved three key perspectives, that of the soldiers trapped on the beach trying to survive and escape for a week, those who spent a day on the sea to pick up soldiers and return them home, and the pilots who spent the crucial hour defending soldiers and boats from enemy planes. Instead of playing these events out separately, Nolan has all of these events play out simultaneously. Editor Lee Smith will cut from a moment of tension between allied soldiers on the beach, to an older British citizen (Mark Rylance) sailing his own ship to Dunkirk to help with the evacuation, to a British fighter pilot (Tom Hardy) shooting down planes as if all of these events were happening concurrently, when in reality they were largely days apart (though the timelines do cross over at various points). This isn’t done to trick viewers (text makes it clear these events were separated), but rather, to give equal consideration to all of the forces involved with the evacuation.

The other effect of Nolan’s storytelling experiments is to create a slight feeling of disorientation and confusion, a feeling that’s really accentuated by the film’s battle scenes. The fact is Nolan never shows the German soldiers, nor does the film really focus on the horrific violence of warfare. The focus is instead on the disorientation of being in a battle. It’s never really clear where gunfire is coming from or if a falling explosive will kill a main character. Post-Saving Private Ryan, most war films have been primarily focused on showing the horrors of war by dwelling on the harsh violence faced by many, but by stepping away from the violence, Nolan has instead created the frenzied confusion of being in a battle. Contributing to the tension is Hans Zimmer’s ticking clock score which does a lot to ratchet up the intensity. There’s nothing as overtly memorable as the best bits from Zimmer’s work on Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, or Interstellar, but the score does work very effectively throughout the film. Technical execution in general lives up to Nolan’s high standards. The film’s production is excellent and visually the film is quite staggering. Nolan’s affinity for IMAX cameras returns with Dunkirk and he’s able to capture a real sense of beauty and scale which is hard to top.

I don’t doubt that some audiences are going to be disappointed with Dunkirk. The film lacks a lot of the conventional character development, political backstory, or contextualizing grand speeches that often pop up in war movies. This is a film that’s firmly about the people who were directly involved with the evacuation and Nolan is clearly interested in creating that visceral experience as realistically as possible. I’d say he succeeded completely. While the lack of characterization maybe limits Dunkirk from reaching the pitch-perfect tone of something like Inception, all the same this is a pretty special accomplishment. Bottom half of Nolan’s filmography? Maybe, but that still makes it one of the year’s best films.

A

Comments
  1. ianthecool says:

    Ah, but Dunkirk does have the Churchhill speech, sort of. And I think that works really well.

    As for split, I found that Macavoy’s performance fit more what you were talking about in the prior paragraph. But maybe thats just cause I don’t find that multiple personalities ever work on film.

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