Film Review: ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’

Matt Reeves and Andy Serkis prove that apes together are still strong…

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Michael Adamthwaite, Amiah Miller

Directed by:  Matt Reeves / Written by:  Mark Bomback & Matt Reeves / 142 minutes

What’s it about?

Under attack by a ruthless colonel and his army, Ape leader Caesar embarks on a journey to bring an end to the bloodshed once and for all…

In review

20th Century Fox’s rebooted Planet of the Apes series (which began with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Rupert Wyatt) continues confidently with its latest chapter, War for the Planet of the Apes.  Quickly proving as captivating as 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it’s quite simply what every summer blockbuster should be – visually astonishing, smart and emotionally engaging with a strong emphasis on character and story.

Picking up two years after the close of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, war with humankind has driven Ape leader Caesar into hiding as he attempts to protect and ensure the future of his fellow apes against the brutal attacks of a rogue army platoon lead by the unsavoury Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), a particularly devastating battle pitting the two leaders against one another as Caesar sets out in pursuit of his enemy in a journey that will see him once again forced to fight for the freedom of his people.

There are further leaps in CGI here that further blurs the line between the real and artificial yet it’s the efforts of the performance-capture artists and returning Dawn director/co-writer (with Mark Bomback) Matt Reeves that really sells it, allowing the audience to become invested and care about the simian society and their struggle for survival.  As Caesar, Andy Serkis brings the experience of his craft fully to bear that, coupled with ground-breaking technology and Reeve’s intricate direction, delivers a powerful and emotive performance that drives the heart and soul of War for the Planet of the Apes.

Serkis is brilliantly supported by returning performance-capture co-stars Terry Notary (as Rocket), Karin Konoval (as Maurice) and Michael Adamthwaite (as Luca) but it’s the addition of new simian character ‘Bad Ape’ that’s a true highlight with Steve Zahn bringing a sympathetic edge to the kooky comic relief that’s a real joy to watch.  There’s also a wonderful dose of heart provided by Amiah Miller, who plays a young mute human girl befriended by Maurice and who Caesar reluctantly allows to join his quest against McCullough.  Along with Bad Ape, she becomes integral to the group and another great addition to the line-up of strong, well-written characters.  As the main antagonist, Woody Harrelson is a real coup bringing a steely eyed quality and cruel malevolence to the role of the Colonel, a character not without his own personal tragedy that helps to paint an unhinged but complex man of war.

As with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves (who has been tasked to take on The Batman) demonstrates an incredible talent for world-building, effortlessly marrying epic landscapes with thrilling action sequences and quieter character-centric moments that draws the viewer into a world that feels far more real than the average franchise blockbuster.  It’s all bolstered by a screenplay that’s layered and constructed with intelligence, accentuating the war film elements with shades of Apocalypse Now and The Great Escape and replete with callbacks to the original Apes series that will further please fans of the classic science-fiction saga.

The bottom line:  A stirring and visually impressive blockbuster with brains, War for the Planet of the Apes is another fine entry in the series.

War for the Planet of the Apes is in cinemas now.

War for POTA

Weathering the storm: Caesar (Andy Serkis) continues the fight for survival in ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’, from 20th Century Fox.

Film Review: ‘Kong: Skull Island’ (spoiler free)

The iconic King of an equally iconic lost world is reborn in a franchise expanding blockbuster…

Starring:  Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Toby Kebbell, John C. Reilly, Corey Hawkins, Terry Notary

Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts / Written by: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connoly (story by John Gatins) / 118 minutes

What’s it about?

A team composed of scientists and military officers mount an expedition to a mysterious lost island in the South Pacific…

In review

Far from being a masterpiece, Kong: Skull Island isn’t in the same league as the classic original 1933 King Kong or Peter Jackson’s superb 2005 remake but is certainly superior to the creaky 1976 version, which starred Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange.

Taking place as the Vietnam War is coming to an end, the narrative of Skull Island is served by a fairly simple, derivative, yet functional and entertaining script (from screenwriters Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connoly) that’s hindered by weak characterisation and occasionally cheesy dialogue that underserves and underutilises a stellar cast.  Tom Hiddleston (Thor’s Loki) and Brie Larson (awarded an Oscar for her role in Room) are capable leads as former S.A.S. tracker James Conrad and ‘anti-war’ photographer Mason Weaver, respectively, with support from Samuel L. Jackson as tough-as-nails military man Lt. Colonel Packard, John Goodman as the expedition’s scientific leader Bill Randa, Corey Hawkins as fellow scientist Houston Brooks, Toby Kebbell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) as Major Jack Chapman and John C. Reilly, on hand to provide doses of comic relief as Marlow, a marooned World War II pilot.  The cast is further filled out by a set of largely forgettable ancillary characters.

The pace of Skull Island is fairly tight which for the most part is fine, but the journey to the mythical Skull Island and the expedition’s first encounter with its ‘King’ all happens a little too quickly.  Some viewers might favour this, but it’s arguable that some extra time spent establishing the characters and a more steady build up to Kong’s reveal could have been of benefit.  That being said, the titular ape’s introduction is pretty spectacular and does not disappoint.

Where Skull Island ultimately succeeds then, is in its visuals and creature conflicts.  Whilst Skull Island itself lacks much of the mystery and creepiness of Peter Jackson’s version, it’s a suitably primal eco-system and Kong himself proves to be a magnificently realised creation, a towering behemoth (at 100ft tall this is the largest version of the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ ever to grace the screen) rendered in CGI with incredibly intricate detail, aided by the performance capture work of Terry Notary.  Kong aside, there’s a decent range of creatures of varied design from giant stick insects and arachnids to the ominously named ‘Skull Crawlers’ that become the main threat to the central characters and provide Kong with a formidable foe to grapple with, leading to a final act that’s quite exhilarating.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (currently tapped to helm the long gestating Metal Gear Solid feature film) handles the effects-driven action with relative ease and delivers some pleasing monster smack downs that will wow and thrill.  The Vietnam era setting is also in the film’s overall favour and affords Vogt-Roberts the opportunity to evoke vibes of Apocalypse Now, made all the more indelible by some wonderful photography from Batman v Superman cinematographer Larry Fong.  It also allows the otherwise disappointing script to inject a dash of well-placed satire.

Given Warner Bros.’/Legendary Pictures’ plans to develop a shared cinematic universe that will incorporate that other iconic screen monster – Godzilla – there are naturally some franchise connections within Skull Island, facilitated by the inclusion of the Monarch organisation that featured in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla and fans are advised to stick around for a tantalising post-credits scene.

More of a blockbuster budgeted B-movie than a modern classic, Skull Island is undemanding fun that’s a little dumb yet occasionally rises to something greater via its visual effects and creature bashing action.

The bottom line:  Entertaining and often exciting, Kong: Skull Island is let down by thinly drawn characters and some weak scripting yet succeeds with its visual thrills.

Kong: Skull Island is in cinemas now.

Kong

The gigantic King of Skull Island roars onto the screen in Warner Bros.’/Legendary Pictures’ blockbuster ‘Kong: Skull Island’.

GBUK Film Classics: ‘Planet of the Apes’ (1968)

Looking at some all-time favourites…

“Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!”

Year:  1968

Starring:  Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans

Director:  Franklin J. Schaffner / Written by:  Michael Wilson and Rod Serling

What’s it about?

A team of human astronauts find themselves on a world where intelligent apes are dominant…

In review

Whilst the Planet of the Apes franchise has seen a successful reinvention with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and last summer’s smash hit sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it’s likely that a sizeable section of the audience are unaware that there is indeed a franchise that began life decades earlier.

Based on the novel by French author Pierre Boulle (whose works also include The Bridge over the River Kwai), Planet of the Apes is the science fiction film classic that would spawn an enduring and popular franchise which by the mid 1970’s would include four sequels and two television spin-offs (one live action, one animated) as well as a plethora of merchandise.

Adhering relatively close to the main plot elements of Boulle’s novel, the film adaptation of Planet of the Apes diverges creatively to depict a more primitive ape society as opposed to the technologically advanced one described in the novel (and the initial script by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, which was subsequently rewritten by Michael Wilson) – primarily due to budgetary concerns and the practical limitations of the times.  This is however all in the film’s favour, giving it a more ‘primal’ feel aided by some basic yet wonderful production design.

Charlton Heston brings star power to Planet of the Apes and is a reliably strong lead as the cynical and misanthropic Taylor who finds himself the subject of controversy and scrutiny as an intelligent and articulate primate, captured and caged like an animal in a world where humans are the mute and lower species.  The real draw however are the ape characters – wise and humble chimpanzees Cornelius (McDowall) and Zira (Hunter) who fall foul of the hateful and cantankerous orangutan Dr. Zaius (Evans) as they befriend Taylor.  Of the ape actors, Roddy McDowall is the standout performer and would continue to delight and further explore the character of an advanced simian in sequels Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (he was unavailable for first sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes) as well as the short-lived live action television series.

Naturally, this brings us to one of the biggest highlights of the entire production – the incredible makeup and prosthetic design of the apes themselves.  Created by John Chambers (responsible for Mr. Spock’s iconic pointed ears in Star Trek) and complemented by Morton Haack’s costume design, the ground-breaking makeup effects still hold up today and would rightfully earn him an honorary Academy Award.

Whilst there are elements of satire and thought provoking exploration of themes such as society, racial prejudice and cautionary tales of the human condition reminiscent of all good science fiction, a large part of the appeal of Planet of the Apes is its pure entertainment value and the depiction of a believable ape society with its hierarchy split across three central ape creeds – the political orangutans, the scientific and academic chimpanzees and the militant gorillas.

Another key component of Planet of the Apes is the inventive and experimental Academy Award nominated music score by Jerry Goldsmith for which he employed the use of unusual instruments and unconventional techniques to help create the eerie and primal feeling of the ape’s world.

Planet of the Apes leaves the viewer with one of film’s greatest and most iconic twist endings, (retained from Rod Serling’s original script) – the revelations of which I shall not divulge here for those who have not seen this classic slice of SF cinema.

Standout moment

Finding themselves in a field where a mute and dumb human society is ‘grazing’, astronauts Taylor, Landon and Dodge are shocked to witness the arrival of clothed, rifle wielding gorillas…on horseback!

Three reasons it’s a classic…

  1. It depicts a believable society of intelligent apes, thanks to a successful blend of production design, incredible makeup effects and the delightfully nuanced performances of actors such as Roddy McDowall.
  1. It features a wonderfully eerie and inventive score by Jerry Goldsmith.
  1. It delivers a shocking and memorable finale which stands as one of the most iconic moments in film history.

Did you know?

Screenwriter Michael Wilson was blacklisted by Hollywood for being a communist during the era of the McCarthy ‘witch hunt’ trials.

If you like this then watch…

Planet of the Apes (2001) : flawed though it may be, Tim Burton’s reimagining is still worth a look and evokes the spirit of the 1968 original by featuring superb makeup design and a mind boggling twist finale that still provokes discussion today.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes : the Apes saga begins anew with this smart reinvention that replaces practical ape makeup effects with remarkable motion capture performances melded with breath-taking CGI.

Taylor (Charlton Heston) befriends chimpanzees Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) in the classic original 'Planet of the Apes'.

Taylor (Charlton Heston) befriends chimpanzees Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) in the classic original ‘Planet of the Apes’.

Film Review: ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ (spoiler free)

A sequel worth going Ape for?

Starring:  Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell

Directed by:  Matt Reeves / Written by:  Mark Bomback and Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver / 130 minutes

What’s it about?

A decade after leading his ape brethren to salvation and the decimation of the human population by the onset of the Simian Flu virus, Caesar finds that the ape society’s peaceful existence is soon threatened when human survivors are discovered…

In review

Summer 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (directed by Rupert Wyatt) proved a successful revitalisation and reinvention of a classic science fiction film franchise.  A surprise critical and commercial hit for studio 20th Century Fox it was a case of “if at first you don’t succeed…”, granted it took over a decade for a second attempt (following the poorly received Planet of the Apes ‘reimagining’ from director Tim Burton) but well worth the wait.

The new Apes franchise was already off to a good start and the saga’s second chapter, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes managed to live up to the hype and the wave of positive opinion that emerged from the film’s theatrical release earlier this year – where it grossed over $700m at the box office.  It’s a sequel that builds upon the creative and narrative foundations of the excellent Rise of the Planet of the Apes, bettering it on every level as every sequel should, yet rarely achieves.

Moving events a decade on from the closing frames of Rise, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes allows us to see an evolving and growing ape society living a peaceful (at times fractious) existence under the leadership of the elder, more seasoned Caesar with loyal allies Koba, Maurice and Rocket still at his side.  Believing that all of humanity has succumbed to the Simian Flu, the ape society’s security is threatened when, by chance, human survivors are discovered.  With a human colony desperate to utilise a nearby dam to provide them with power, a reluctant and uneasy alliance is formed and deceits eventually bring both groups to the brink of war.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is obviously a visual marvel – much as Rise was upon release – made possible by the continuing refinement of digital effects and motion capture technology.  It’s all handled capably by director Matt Reeves who is no stranger to large scale environments and the demands of a multi-million dollar effects-laden project, having cut his teeth on the J.J. Abrams-produced Cloverfield.

Yet there’s much more to Dawn beyond its visual aesthetics and technical accomplishments.  This is a film with dramatic and narrative weight with some great and well defined characters – both ape and human.  Andy Serkis once again proves that motion capture performances are just that – beneath the digital exterior lies expressions of thought and emotion that truly make the ape characters believable and Serkis is arguably at the forefront of it all.  Gary Oldman gives another reliable turn as Dreyfus, the emotionally tortured leader of the human survivors, but Caesar’s true counterpart lies in Jason Clarke’s Malcolm, a man who he finds holds similar values of family and society.  One of Dawn’s biggest draws however is the rebellious and volatile Koba, brought breathlessly to life by Toby Kebbell with a performance that is truly electrifying (and at times terrifying) and adds further weight to that believability of these characters.  Along with Sirkis, he is an incredible talent and a joy to behold.

That’s what is most enjoyable about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, amongst some of the more comfortable ‘by the numbers’ popcorn blockbusters that were also released this summer, it is a film with not only spectacle, exciting set-pieces and jaw-dropping effects but a laudable measure of heart and soul as it explores themes of family and survival and brains as it conveys a narrative that is beyond a mere case of ‘good’ apes versus ‘bad’ humans.  Just like the original Apes franchise explored these themes of society and the human condition, so does Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The bottom line:  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a strong contender for film of the year, beyond its incredible technical achievements it has a resonance and depth that many other summer blockbusters fail to accomplish.  Not to be missed.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download now.

The incredible Andy Serkis brings the Ape leader, Caesar to life in 20th Century Fox's spectacular 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'.

The incredible Andy Serkis brings the Ape leader, Caesar to life in 20th Century Fox’s spectacular ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’.

What are your thoughts on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes?  Leave your comments below!

Have Yourselves a GEEKY Little Christmas…

Hey folks!  With Christmas well and truly upon us, I thought I would drop you all a (fairly) quick note wishing you the very best for Christmas, the New Year and beyond!

I’d also like to thank you all for your support over the last few months and for taking the time to check out this little blog of mine.  I’m humbled and forever grateful and must apologise for the lack of updates over the recent weeks, stay tuned for some fresh geekery in the New Year (I’ll also do some catching up with your wonderful blogs).

2014 looks set to be (at least potentially) a phenomenal year for geek fandom, with some tantalising treats in store.  Prepare to empty your wallets and purses, declare bankruptcy and form orderly queues for the likes of highly anticipated big screen releases including Robocop (please be good), Godzilla (have you seen that trailer?), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (CANNOT wait for that), The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past (Stewart! McKellen! Jackman! McAvoy! Fassbender! Oh my!), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the first post-Bat offering from Christopher Nolan, Interstellar.

On the small screen we’ll have the continuation of current seasons of Arrow (and a pilot for the impending Flash series), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (hopefully we’ll see some improvement) and RevolutionSherlock will live again and the time-hopping (profanity lacking) adventures of Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor shall commence in Doctor Who.  Hopefully it won’t be too long until the UK television premiere of the J.J. Abrams produced, Karl Urban starring Almost Human which I’m hearing good things about and the next season of Under the Dome will intrigue without ‘jumping the shark’ (that first season finale was a little worrying) and Falling Skies will continue to excite.

Plus there’ll be ongoing geekery in the world of comic books and gaming as Sony and Microsoft plough ahead with the new generation (I’ve waited long enough, just give me Metal Gear Solid V now) but I’ll leave it there, come up for air and just sign off by saying wherever you are and whatever you do (hopefully playing on your PS4’s and X-Box One’s in between bites of turkey, sips of wine and viewings of many a Christmas classic), eat, drink, be merry and most of all – be safe!

See you in 2014…

Hopefully you won't catch this guy in the act on Christmas Eve...

Hopefully you won’t catch this guy in the act on Christmas Eve…