war for the planet of the apes reaction

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, and opinionated about something that makes us very happy…or fills us with indescribable rage. In this edition: why an otherwise very good movie like War For the Planet of the Apes suffers from being indebted to other movies.)

War For the Planet of the Apes is a stunning capper to one of the greatest blockbuster trilogies ever. The reviews have flowed in praising the sci-fi film’s emotional heft and mind-blowing use of technology — our own review on /Film gave it a rare 10 out of 10 — and I can agree that it’s an example of the best of its genre.

And like many sci-fi genre films these days, War For the Planet of the Apes relied heavily on homages and parallels to popular genres of the past, from Westerns to Biblical epics. It seems to be a signifier of any intellectual blockbuster nowadays — how nimbly can they transform an established movie genre and appeal to the audiences’ esteem of the genre to which they’re paying homage? War For the Planet of the Apes is not the first nor the last to do this, and it does it marvelously. But are sci-fi blockblusters limiting themselves by giving deference to other genres before them?

Let me start this off by saying that I really liked War For the Planet of the Apes. It was a stirring, powerful marvel of blockbuster filmmaking, and had such an Oscar-worthy performance from Andy Serkis as Caesar that I will be enraged if he gets snubbed. But I did not love it.

I had been enraptured for most of the film, from the explosive beginning battle scenes to the softer moments between Caesar and his family to the violent turn of events started by the manic Colonel (Woody Harrelson), which starts Caesar down a dark path of vengeance. Steve Zahn‘s “Bad Ape” gave the film needed moments of levity, while a mute girl (Amiah Miller), who suffers from a new strain of the simian flu, provides the emotional touchstone for the movie. The characters leap off the screen with the help of the cutting edge motion capture technology, lending apes like Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) more humanity than they had in the previous movies.

But as colorful and lively as the characters are, I could slowly see them become engulfed by the needs of catering to genre homage. The film transformed into The Great Escape and The Bridge on the River Kwai with bits of Lawrence of Arabia thrown in — and as much as I enjoyed seeing apes going through the motions of these classic films, I felt like something was missing. At one point, the film feels like it’s the checking off of a list of cursory genre beats: a Western homage? Check. A heist subplot? Check. Religious allegories that parallel Biblical instances of oppression and sacrifice? Check.

As my friend raved about the film and its deft use of homage and genre, I realized that this was a movie made just for him. And maybe not in particular for me.

War For the Planet of the Apes is not the first genre film this year to skillfully turn an homage of the Western into a transcendent blockbuster film — Logan was also a perfect example of an “intellectual blockbuster.” But I found that while these two films tested the limits of sci-fi and superhero films, they also showed how limited they are to a certain perspective: that of the white, male director who upholds the Western as the be-all-end-all of genre filmmaking. I know, I sound like I’m getting on my diversity soapbox, but that’s was the reason I felt shut out of the acclaim for War For the Planet of the Apes.

I found myself going back to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which offered a nuanced portrayal of two sides of a conflict who may have been able to live together harmoniously if not for misunderstanding and paranoia — a more intimate and emotional portrayal than the epic, sweeping film of Biblical proportions that War For the Planet of the Apes is.

I do not think that War For the Planet of the Apes is lacking by not catering to my needs specifically — though the lack of significant female characters, ape and human alike, is telling. I would like to see a blockbuster film that ventures beyond the genres that extol the same kind of rugged machismo.

War For the Planet of the Apes hits theaters on July 14.

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