The Planet of the Apes franchise is a remake I can get behind because special effects, both practical and computer generated, have come a long way since the series launched in 1968, and the idea that humanity's need to tinker with the natural world might be our downfall seems more prescient now than ever.
The franchise has always hung on Caesar, the alpha ape raised (and genetically manipulated) by humans, and War for the Planet of the Apes is no different. After quelling a traitorous insurgency in the last film, Caesar's character arc climaxes on a Shakespearean level this time out. He is happy to lead his apes into a peaceful coexistence with humans, but a bloodthirsty military cult led by "The Colonel" sees the mere existence of intelligent apes as a threat to human survival. So they wage a brutal, torturous war.
It's all kept nice and personal. Rather than a Return of the King-style, two-zillion-soldier-battle film, director Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Cloverfield) opts to pit the two nemeses against each other in a variety of conflicts, climaxing in a doozy end fight. Caesar's inner turmoil drives the story through a litany of bleak-but-stunning post-humanity locations (including an abandoned ski hill!), as he struggles with his hatred for what humanity has done to his kind.
The script is accentuated with fine acting. As the crazed villainous Colonel, Woody Harrelson goes full Colonel Kurtz. And let the record show Andy Serkis is still the heavyweight champion of motion-capture acting, his Caesar could be a Best Actor contender. There's also comic relief from a castaway, shaman-esque hermit ape played by Steve Zahn (Strange Wilderness, Rescue Dawn) and real tenderness from Karin Konoval's Bornean orangutan. The way WETA digital (Lord of the Rings) brought these CGI characters to life is game changing. There are numerous scenes in the film that are perfectly engaging with no humans present on screen.
There have been eight previous Planet of the Apes flicks (plus a live-action and an animated TV series), but the delivery has never been this grim, or poignant. Reeves, who co-wrote the script with Mark Bomback (The Wolverine, Unstoppable), mines symbolism from a fistful of iconic human conflicts (everything from Biblical Egypt, to Auschwitz, to the American West, to Civil Rights) and the takeaway glimpse of humanity isn't very complimentary. Caesar is most horrified when he sees pieces of himself in the hatred-consumed Colonel, and perhaps the worst thing that can happen to the apes is not annihilation, but rather evolution into us.
It's not light, but War for the Planet of the Apes an extremely well-crafted sci-fi story with bang-up action, incredible visuals and something to say. Viewed over a long enough timeline, this may be a cautionary tale about where humanity is going if we continue to ignore our fragile relationship with nature, but with all hate and brutality on display, it could also be taken as a bleak look at where we're at.
On a (much) lighter note, The Big Sick is a romantic comedy done right, which means it's actually both comedic and romantic. Actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani (Fist Fight, Silicon Valley) and Zoe Kazan (The Monster) star as Kumail and Emily, lovers from opposite sides of the cultural tracks navigating the ins and outs of a courtship that includes Emily being in a medically induced coma.
The romance rides sidecar to the comedy and The Big Sick is as much about the tribulations of family interference on relationships as anything to do with love. Produced by Judd Apatow (40-Year-Old Virgin) the script for The Big Sick was written by Nanjiani with his real-life wife Emily Gordon. It opened last weekend in five theatres and made almost half a million dollars (the best per-theatre gross of any film this year). As Hollywood continues to struggle with inclusion issues, a financially and critically successful interracial love story putting minorities front and centre is definitely a step in the right direction. The Big Sick is a bit long for my tastes but it's worth checking out this week at the Village 8.
The Stream of the Week is Okja, Bong Joon-ho's intoxicating story about a girl and her pet genetically enhanced pig. It's like The Neverending Story filtered through a militant vegan's colon, but it's funny, and touching and awesome. Check it on Netflix.