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War for the Planet of the Apes

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The Planet of the Apes redux has kind of been the quiet achiever of the modern blockbuster milieu, quietly chugging away, putting out pretty great sci-fi adventures every few years, and fading from public consciousness in between releases. 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a surprisingly good, smart, and heartfelt origin story for the venerable Apes franchise (which already had one, to be fair, but these days genetic tomfoolery flies much better than time travel). 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes moved the timeline forward, putting us in a post-pandemic dystopia and setting the stage for the final installment: War for the Planet of the Apes.

Except we don’t really get a War, but more of a Running Skirmish, which would certainly make for a less enticing title, if a more accurate one. When we return to our simian apocalypse the nascent Ape Nation under noble chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis) is fighting a guerrilla ‘gorilla’ war against a human army led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson doing a kind of redneck Colonel Kurtz). When the Colonel kidnaps Caesar’s infant son, Cornelius (!), Caesar and a few of his closest companions, including the wise orangutan, Maurice (Karin Konoval); the loyal chimp, Rocket (Terry Notary); and the brave gorilla, Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) head off on a rescue mission, while the rest of the tribe try to make it to a place of refuge far from the combative humans.

One of the key achievements and charms of the modern Apes series is the way it has made us as viewers completely believe in and empathise with non-human characters. Taking advantage of cutting edge CGI and motion capture technology, coupled with the staggering performance chops of Andy Serkis, the series has given us in Caesar perhaps the greatest non-human protagonist in film history, and put him in a world populated by creatures as believable and worthy of investment as himself.

But the thing is, that’s not enough – you have to give such a character something to do, and stakes that feel tangible. It’s enough now, three movies in, to marvel at the technical achievements of bringing Caesar and co. to life – if they weren’t “real” for us already, the whole exercise would be a wasted effort.  For all that the “rescue the kid” plot is a sturdy workhorse, it’s not used to particularly good effect here; there’s precious little sense of urgency, and War just plods along, wallowing in its own sense of importance. We get plenty of (furry) navel gazing, some fine speechifying, and a ponderous sense of implacable destiny forcing us into conflict – but precious little action and, lest we forget, action is character.

It’s the little details that keep War alive, rather than the actual main plot. Along the way, Maurice adopts a mute human girl that he names Nova (Amiah Miller), which should give fans of the ’68 Planet of the Apes a little rill of pleasure. More interesting things are afoot in the human camp: for one thing, we have turncoat apes called “donkeys”, remnants of Koba’s rebels from the previous movie, working as scouts and labourers for the humans, in an echo of the Indian scouts of the Plains Wars; for another, there’s a second pandemic on the loose, one that renders humans mute and bestial, which pushes the scenario further towards what we saw in the ’68 Apes.

That’s all very well, but it doesn’t stop the overall film from feeling underwhelming. Other wrinkles, like Steve Zahn’s tiresome comic relief as Bad Ape, a circus monkey turned eccentric hermit, actively detract from proceedings – why are we hanging out with this guy when there’s a kidnapped kid to rescue, a budding civilisation to save, and an apocalyptic battle to be fought?

We do get that battle in the end, but it comes courtesy of a plot machination (one that would be ‘spoilerish’ to divulge) that feels counter to the stated themes that have come before, delivering spectacle but not a completely satisfying conclusion. Ultimately, War for the Planet of the Apes feels more like it’s ticking boxes to get to a foregone conclusion rather than arriving there organically. The film we get is serviceable enough, and it’s never not going to be fun seeing a chimp cavalry charge human infantry, or a gorilla act as the loader on a machine gun emplacement, there’s nothing really being done or said here that wasn’t already covered more effectively in the previous installment.

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Adapted from his own comic by Ghost World creator Daniel Clowes, Wilson follows the titular neurotic grump (Woody Harrelson) as he navigates a difficult stretch of time after reconnecting with his ex-wife, Pippi (Laura Dern) leads to the discovery of Claire (Isabella Amara), the daughter he never knew he had, now an alienated mall goth living with her wealthy adoptive parents in picturesque suburbia.

The “crank with a heart of gold” archetype is a pretty familiar one by this stage of the game; think Jack Nicholson in As Good as it Gets, Bill Murray in St Vincent, Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa, and now Woody Harrelson in this. Harrelson’s variation on the type is a pseudo-intellectual with poor social skills, easily irked by the vexations of the modern life, and given to lecturing hapless passers-by because, as he puts it, he’s a “people person”.

In lesser hands the character would be unbearable, and you’ll need a taste for cringe comedy to take him as presented, but Harrelson manages to make Wilson sympathetic through sheer force of will, imbuing him with enough self-awareness to mitigate his pricklier aspects. The discovery of his daughter, long thought aborted, spurs Wilson to at least try to get his act together -something that Pippi, a recovering drug addict and former sex worker, is already endeavoring to do. The most interesting stretch of the film involves them and Claire experimenting with being a family unit, hitting a cheesy amusement park and just kind of hanging out.

But this is only part of Wilson’s narrative, a fairly episodic affair that moves in fits and starts; suitable for the comic book format, perhaps, but less successful on the screen. The story take a weird left turn about halfway through when Wilson’s attempts to forge a connection with Claire have some unexpectedly dire consequences, and it never quite recovers from that.

Wilson is really a work of portraiture more than narrative, and how well that works depends on whether or not you’re sick of this kind of character, whose misanthropy and unearned narcissism can start to wear thin after a while, and whose arc curves only ever so slightly towards growth and redemption. Harrelson’s charms and the excellent supporting cast count for a lot, but in the end you find yourself wondering what the point of the exercise was.