War for the Planet of the Apes

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Some may have forgotten already but this iteration of “Planet of the Apes” is the second major studio reboot for the franchise.  Forgotten of course referencing the 2001 reboot starring Mark Walberg and directed by Tim Burton.  The newest reboot of the franchise began in 2011 and has been popular among moviegoing audiences and critics alike.  Andy Serkis has shone in the motion capture lead role as the Caesar, a genetically altered ape who is leading a revolution of apes on an earth whose human population has been decimated by a virus.  Much of the success of these films have to do with making an effort to understand the apes themselves and how/why they are motivated to build their own society apart from humans.  This is done meticulously, first by showing how Caesar’s understanding of humans is complicated in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”.  Then it is further deepened in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” by displaying the importance of building a peaceful society apart from the humans.  Humans, who seem to be intent on survival at any cost, which could result in the death of many apes and/or the demise of their own fragile remaining society.  These films are built on ideas about the cost of survival versus functional society and how that plays out when those ideas are in opposition.  These films have been consistent in their storytelling which explains why they continue to do well.

A few words about War for the Planet of the Apes:

  1. Slow – The movie opens with a battle scene that is pretty intense viewing.  However, after the initial skirmishes, much of the first hour of the film plods along a little more deliberately than I would have hoped.  While the excellent acting of Andy Serkis shines through the CGI rendering of Caesar, the choice to make the movie more deliberate to me does so at the cost of what I believe the movie was selling. If indeed the movie intended to sell the final showdown for the fate of the earth’s superior inhabitants.  On some level the movie accomplished this showdown, however, a large portion of the movie is spent studying the in depth emotion that is conveyed through Caesar’s face.  This makes much of the beginning of the film a bit of an emotional odyssey.
  2. Emotional to a fault – Speaking of emotional, this film ratchets up the stakes in that regard.  At times I was left feeling a little emotionally raw as at one point it seemed as if the Apes and particularly Caesar were never going to catch a break.  I also believe that walking into this movie believing that I would be watching a chess match showdown between human and ape placed me in the wrong frame of mind for the deeply emotional journey I received.  There are many quiet moments, many deep exchanges, long glances, etc that take the place of actual dialogue, which would work well to establish this journey.  However, for a movie that seemed to tout war being at its core, it would seem that war (while being set against a backdrop of a type of war) was more metaphor than actuality.  It would seem this was more of an emotional war than a physical one.
  3. Bad use of woody harrelson – Woody Harrelson depicts “The Colonel” who is in the film as the primary antagonist to the Apes as well as the key to answering some of the audience’s questions about halfway through the film.  Since the film unfolds as a mystery in the beginning by the time we get a full glimpse of Woody Harrelson he is there to fill all the gaps in the story for us, and to provide an obstacle before the Apes can get to their ultimate goal.  To me, this seemed like it could have been executed more effectively, as Woody Harrelson has the capability and range to have provided more nuance in this role.
  4. No character development for the humans – While all of “The Colonel”‘s backstory is revealed in one monologue, none of the other humans are given this courtesy.  This makes for very one-dimensional villains.  While on some level you may be able to sympathize with “the colonel” given his story, it was very hard for me to understand his followers and why they would engage in such cruelty that didn’t seem to be based on the desperation of survival as they were intending.  The idea that the humans are in a situation where they have no choice but to fight the apes is understandable, however without getting a full idea of the world that the humans themselves live in, it was hard for me to feel anything besides irrational hatred for them.
  5. Ceases world building – Much of this movie (and the series) is spent with the Apes and their view of the world.  This tight view of what is supposed to be a worldwide conflict makes the “planet” advertising to me a bit of a red herring.  Perhaps the idea of an ape “planet” was meant to just be a nod to the original films, however, all of the three movies are entrenched in one particular area of the planet.  This makes the whole idea of a worldwide plague seem a little more far fetched than I believe the creators of the series intended.  If we’re spending all of the time with the Apes and learning about the world only from them and one or two other human encampments, it makes it difficult to zoom out in my mind what survival on this “planet of apes” looks like.

I believe my last point is really why I ultimately didn’t like this movie much to the contrary of most movie goers.  I expected to see a world built out that that shows how the apes went from a forest in CA to across the planet and didn’t quite get that in this film.  This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t go see this movie as I believe it does bring to an emotional conclusion this specific tale of one ape’s view of the world from Rise to War. This makes the film gratifying in that respect I suppose.  However, do not make the mistake of thinking you are going to see apes wage all out war against humans.  Bring your kids, it’s safe for most.  2.99 of 5 stars.

Alien Covenant

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Alien Covenant is the second film in the prequel Alien series and the 6th film considered to be a part of the original canon of Alien films.  (This is a direct reference to the now defunct Alien vs Predator series which licenses the use of the Xenomorphs from the original films, I should also state that Aliens have also been in comic books and various other media ventures so the property itself has been very profitable.)  The continuation of the series picks up after the events of Prometheus which saw the film return to its original suspense/mystery roots.  This shift allowed for new questions to be asked and answered of the original series as well as make use of modern advances in film technology to build the world to be visually stunning.  Prometheus did well at the box office setting up director Ridley Scott nicely for his plan to make multiple prequels and sequels.  Alien Covenant picks up about 10 or 11 years after the events of Prometheus and follows the attempted colonization of the planet Origae-6.  This film seeks to add further depth to the Alien Universe and continue telling the origin story of the Xenomorphs and their creators the “Engineers”.

A few words about Alien:  Covenant:

  1. Characters are flat – There is not much character development at all in this installment of Alien.  While the characters have an assumed backstory, exposition that is explicitly stated in the movie does little to provide depth to the characters themselves.  It does not help that in many cases the characters are making stock horror movie decisions, such as always choosing to split up rather than work together.  At one point in the movie, the idea of them continuously splitting up becomes a little comical as one character will be found dead, and the remaining characters still assign separate tasks for each other to complete.  The setups for Alien carnage comes off a little convenient.
  2. Not many Xenomorphs – In this movie while the Xenomorphs (traditional Alien creatures from these films) are prominently displayed, at times their presence did not feel necessary.  The central conflict involved them, however, they were not the central villain.  This made seeing them feel a little empty or one note.  In many cases, it seemed as if they only showed up to ratchet up the immediate tension rather than because they were a necessity to the story.
  3. Two much fassbender – It is not a spoiler to say that Michael Fassbender plays two roles in this movie.  While his acting is solid and interesting to watch, at one point he’s doing scenes with both characters together.  These scenes were at least a little bit overwrought.  I found myself wondering what the ultimate purpose of these scenes were and don’t ever know that it was revealed.  Seeing him “mentor” himself came off hokier than I believe it was intended to be.
  4. Not much real story development – Prometheus introduces the characters of the “engineer” or the beings that humans suspect created them.  In Alien Covenant, the engineers have a brief moment but their story is not really expanded upon.  The questions raised about them in Prometheus seemed to be discarded in order to create a different movie.
  5. Visually Appealing – Much like Prometheus the use of wide shots in this movie did much to establish the contrast between the small humans exploring the vast universe.  Many of the shots are breathtaking on the big screen, which in this format does a great job of making the viewer feel small as well.

Overall, this movie did very many traditional “Alien” things.  There are Xenomorphs, space tension, action, air locks, acid blood, running, screaming and dying.  However, this film eventually ends up just being another installment of Xenomorphs killing humans.  While the reasoning for the existence of Xenomorphs is a little clearer, the film ultimate does little to expand the mythology of the Alien universe.  I would still love to see a movie that does more to expand this backstory, much like Prometheus began to do.  This is a solid summer movie, but ultimately I left the theater feeling like something was missing.  Do not bring your kids.  2.5 of 5 stars.