Blu-ray Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

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Maybe these new Planet of the Apes movies, including the new-to-Blu-ray War for the Planet of the Apes are for people who just can't get past the rubber masks of the original series. The 1968 adaptation of Pierre Boulle that started it all is a multi-layered science fiction masterpiece laced with humor, much of it quite dark. The subsequent series of films, made on increasingly shoestring budgets, is consistently inventive—each entry boasting its own style and sense of purpose. By the time Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) concluded the original five-part series, its producers were more interested in marketing to the kiddie demo but the screenwriters valiantly fought to include relevant material with as much intelligence and emotion as possible.

The new series, which began in 2011 with Rise of... and continued in 2014 with Dawn of..., concludes with the excessively blunt War for.... Hailed by many critics as a 'thinking person's' blockbuster, the film had difficulty staking out a wide audience while in theaters. It's an extremely dour, depressing, overbearingly heavy action film. And the metaphors are so on-the-nose one could simply substitute any real-life oppressed class in place of the put-upon apes. There are references to slavery, the Holocaust, and more. What exactly is the point in dumbing down real-life historical tragedies, adding nothing to the mix (certainly not a sense of wonder or invention) except first-rate special effects? In order to maintain a PG-13 rating, the digital bloodletting is kept to a minimum so even the brutality committed against the apes—who only seek freedom and equal rights—is rendered sterile. (Not that witnessing these noble beasts, however digital they may be, mowed down by heavy artillery is particularly pleasant to begin with... but the senseless slaughter could've at least carried more potent dramatic weight.)
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In War for... writer-director Matt Reeves' (who also helmed Dawn of...) reach exceeds his grasp. Tonally the film evokes the seriousness of war epics like Apocalypse Now, but ultimately this is a film about digital apes riding horses and shooting guns. Caesar (Andy Serkis, as in the previous two installments) leads the ape rebellion against the encroaching human army, itself led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). Caesar just wants a safe wilderness refuge to raise his family and protect the other apes. But after some of his family is slain, Caesar turns militant. It all marches forward at a deliberately-paced 140 minutes, to a final showdown between man and ape. Harrelson goes over the top in a seemingly semi-intentional send-up of Brando's Kurtz. We already had an ape-themed sci-fi adventure that cribbed from/ripped off Apocalypse Now, and it managed to offer some good non-CG performances—Kong: Skull Island.

Serkis remains extremely impressive as Caesar, not only because of his motion-capture performance but because the digital animation is so convincing. While the original series of films looked cheaper and cheaper, these new ones have only improved with each subsequent entry. Fox Home Entertainment's Blu-ray (also available in Blu-ray 3D and 4K UltraHD editions) has audio and visual specs that far exceed the quality of the leaden storytelling.

Special features include 20-plus minutes of deleted scenes, the half-hour 'making of' "Waging War for the Planet of the Apes," and several shorter featurettes (the best being "Apes: The Meaning of It All," which deals with the older films as well). "The Apes Saga: An Homage" is also a neat piece that ties in elements of the original classics. Director Matt Reeves contributes audio commentary and there are also concept art galleries.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is film and music. His new jazz album Good Merlin is now available.

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