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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

What the Hell's It Good For: War for the Planet of the Apes vs Dunkirk

A bit of an odd pairing this but bear with me...

Despite their pronounced war aspects, Dunkirk and War for the Planet of the Apes are two rather different films. One is a fantasy that makes heavy use of metaphor to talk about real-world issues, while one is an on-the-ground look at a real military event of some 300 000 Allied Soldiers being evacuated from German-occupied Belgium. One is actually a war movie with its emphasis firmly on military battles; one just uses its war trappings as the dressing on what is basically a near-Biblical fable. One centres on the trials and travails of ordinary young men during a horrific historical incident; one features talking apes in a rather (one hopes) unlikely future. These are not the same film by any stretch of the imagination and, yet, as I slouched out of Dunkirk in a state of abject disappointment, all I could do was think back to the latest - and best - Planet of the Apes movie.

Both films, you see, are staggering technical achievements; where artistic vision is easily matched by groundbreaking (though completely different) special effects, powerful musical scores, and breathtaking cinematography, but however much I admire what Christopher Nolan achieved with Dunkirk it simply didn't have anything close to the level of intellectual engagement or emotional wallop that Matt Reeves' presumably final film in this act of the Planet of Apes franchise dolled out in spades.

Nolan has constantly been criticized for being a "cold" director: a filmmaker whose technical excellence is never matched by any real emotional investment in the final film, but I've always found that argument largely spurious in the extreme. If you can't find the beating heart at the centre of the Dark Knight and Interstellar, in particular, you're really not trying hard enough. Sadly, Dunkirk was the first time in a Christopher Nolan movie that I absolutely recognized all the criticisms that have been thrown his way for years now.

For all of its genuine spectacle and peerless cinematic artistry, Dunkirk was an extremely odd viewing experience: I would constantly recognize the emotions I should be feeling at any given point in the film but without ever actually feeling any of them. That this should happen in Nolan's most grounded and most theoretically visceral film to date is an irony that is not lost on me.

Though, on the other hand, calling the film utterly uninvolving on an emotional level is not exactly fair either. Along with some tense thrills that occasionally did push through, I watched Dunkirk with a real sense of awe at what Nolan and his cast and crew had accomplished - a cinematic miracle that becomes more apparent the more you learn about what went into making the film. Awe is not an emotion that you can apply to many a blockbuster whose grandeur and CGI effects have become almost rote by now so this is no small point in Dunkirk's favour.

And yet and yet and yet, for all of this, I can't shake the fact that I was, dare I say it, teetering on the edge of boredom for large swathes of the film's running time.

My feelings towards Dunkirk are, in fact, rather similar to Mad Max: Fury Road that was itself hailed as a brilliantly made (again, no arguments there) and visceral piece of pure visual filmmaking. I like Dunkirk a lot more, to be sure, but my feeling towards both might just point to the fact that, save for the odd bit of Lynchian absurdist/ surrealist lunacy and dreamy Under-the-Skin-esque creepiness, I generally crave a bit more narrative and characterization in my filmgoing experiences.

Dunkirk has plenty of quite brilliant action scenes and an expert melding of different times and places (one day on the sea, one hour in the air and one week on the mole, if I recall correctly) into a coherent whole but only Mark Rylance's civilian sea captain comes close to being an actual, remotely developed character and, though there is technically a story here, it mostly plays out like a very extended action set piece where we know the outcome.  

I realize that such a thing can - and clearly has - resonated with many audiences and critics but I would be engorging on a baker's dozen of porky pies (which, as a practicing Jew, is less than ideal) if I was to suggest that it did with me.

Now, compare this to War for the Planet of the Apes. Like Dunkirk, this is not a movie that naturally appeals to a verbal thinker like yours truly as so much of it is notably dialogue-free but it resonated with me more than any movie about talking apes has any right to - and, indeed, more than all but a small handful of films have done so this year.

This was especially pleasantly surprising because, between its action-heavy trailer, its title and its place in the overall narrative, I went expecting a film that would favour action set pieces over the powerful character work and thematic richness of its predecessors. What I found instead was a film that did have some very effective war set pieces (usually in the "war is hell" mode) but was mostly, at once, a personal story of loss and revenge; a simian retelling of the Moses story and, like the best science fiction, an unflinching examination of what it means to be human.

Andy Serkis' jaw-dropping portrayal of Caesar - which remains every bit as much about his excellence as an actor as it is about the incredible performance-capture technology that allows him to visually transform into an ape - is, once again, at the heart of the film but this is also a film that will have you remembering, for a long time after the credits have rolled, a wise and compassionate Orangutan named Maurice; a battle-scarred ape named "Bad Ape" who is, at once, the film's comedy relief and its most tragic figure and a very brave, little deaf girl named Nova (beautifully played by newcomer Amiah Miller) who provides, what is to me, the ultimate emotional climax to a film full of them. There's also Woody Harrelson being typically great in an atypical role as a Colonel-Kurtz-like figure named, appropriately enough, the Colonel but he is there more as a counterpoint to the other characters than a fully realized creation himself - though he is certainly more of one than anyone in Dunkirk

Like Dunkirk, War is an incredibly well-made motion picture but it is one that, quite profoundly, works its way into your heart and into your mind with characters and a storyline that leave an indelible impression. To sum up the massive difference between the two, you need only look at the music that drives both films. While Hanz Zimmer's powerful score both mirrors and compels the action in Dunkirk, it does so more through tonality and dynamics than anything actually approaching a melody. It's incredibly effective and precisely integrated, in other words, but it's not exactly stirring War for the Planet of the Apes, on the other hand, also relies heavily on its score but Michael Giacchino's work here is stunningly beautiful - perhaps not as instantly memorable as those classic '70s and '80s scores from John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith but every bit as romantic, musically speaking.

That climactic scene with Nova and the Apes - believe me, you'll know it when you see it - is a triumph already on any number of levels but Giacchino's score turns it into something genuinely transcendental - life affirming in the most poignant meaning of the term. And, however brilliantly made it may be, that is just not a word I would ever use to describe Dunkirk. Ironic, considering Nolan's last film but there you go.


War for the Planet of the Apes:

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