Strange World – Review

What a time for Disney Animation to release their new, 61st feature into theaters.  Just a week before the Thanksgiving Day weekend that has for many years been a major release period for the studio, Disney has seen a major shake-up at the top of their company.  Bob Chapek, the embattled CEO of Disney since 2020 is out and his predecessor Bob Iger is back in, just a few short years after he passed the baton over.  Disney certainly has weathered tough times before, but things certainly were a bit more chaotic during these last couple years, many of it completely out of the control of everyone within the company.  There certainly couldn’t have been a worse time for new management to come in to the head office of the Disney company than the weeks before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, but that’s where Disney found itself.  To Chapek’s credit, he did the best he could to steer the company through those early months.  One of the key things that happened in that time was Disney Animation’s move to shifting their productions to “work at home.”  Spread between the animation departments of both Disney and Pixar, this shift enabled the company to continue working on their movies in the pipeline without having to succumb to costly delays.  On the production side of Animation at Disney, the company managed to continue working through the pandemic without missing a beat.  However, Chapek began to lose trust within the company as he cancelled planned theatrical releases for some of the animated films, particularly those made by Pixar, and moved them to streaming instead.  According to some at Pixar, these decisions were made without their consultation.  Chapek’s short term profit motives over time ended up not stacking up as he hoped, leading to big quarterly misses in profits, and thus the Chapek era has come to a drastic and controversial end.  And all the while, Disney has to continue their roll out of new animated features, which have to stand out amidst all this corporate turmoil.

Releasing this weekend is Strange World, an action adventure film that marks one of the final movies made almost entirely at home during the pandemic.  Unlike Pixar Animation, Disney Animation has managed to continue releasing their films in theaters.  The first pandemic affected film, Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) received a hybrid release in both theaters where they were available and through premiere access on Disney+.  The next film, Oscar-winning Encanto (2021), received a full theatrical roll-out that saw modest box office before becoming a huge hit on streaming months later.  All the while, Pixar Animation saw three straight films, Soul (2020), Luca (2021), and Turning Red (2022) dropped straight to streaming without a full theatrical release like what Disney Animation was getting.  This led the Emeryville based studio to complain that the Burbank based studio was receiving favorable treatment, which may have led to some of the grumbling that contributed to the loss of confidence in Chapek.  Pixar did finally get a theatrical run this summer, but the film Lightyear performed well under expectations.  At the same time, rival studio Illumination managed to gross a billion dollars worldwide with their animated sequel Minions: The Rise of Gru (2022).  With the undervaluation of the Pixar brand during this pandemic, and Disney Animation also failing to reach their pre-pandemic levels at the box office, Disney for the first time in a while looks to be playing catch-up.  And this is after a decade that saw Disney go on a winning streak that included multiple billion dollar movies like Frozen (2013) and Zootopia (2016).  Which means that Strange World has to do some heavy lifting in order to convince Hollywood that Disney is still king of animation.  The question is, did Disney deliver another all time classic or is a movie that sadly is another victim of a company is disarray?

The movie Strange World takes place in the kingdom of Avalonia, a secluded land surrounded by high mountains.  The mountains have long been viewed as impassable, but that view is not shared by Avlonia’s greatest adventurer, Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid).  Jaeger has mastered any challenge thrown his way, but passing through the mountains has been the goal that has eluded him.  He embarks on yet another expedition, but his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) refuses to go any further after making a discovery in the mountains of a unique plant based power source which he calls Pando.  Jaeger, determined not to give up on his dream of conquering the mountains leaves Searcher and the rest of the team behind and continues his trek.  25 years pass and Searcher Clade has developed a quiet prosperous life as a Pando farmer.  The cultivation of Pando has helped Avalonia progress into an advanced, technological society with flying vehicles and near limitless energy.  Searcher spends his days balancing life as both a farmer and a loving husband a father.  His wife, Meridian (Gabrielle Union) is an expert pilot, while Searcher is hoping to have his son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) follow more in his footsteps and take over the farm from him.  But their quiet life is disrupted when the president of Avalonia, Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), who was once a fellow explorer with Jaeger Clade, delivers the troubling news of a mysterious disease that is affecting their Pando crop.  Searcher agrees to investigate with her, but orders his eager son Ethan to stay home much to the younger Clade’s dismay, as he is hungry for an adventure of his own.  Of course, Ethan manages to sneak aboard their ship as they begin to examine a large sink hole that has emerged in their kingdom.  Not long after Searcher makes the discovery of his son’s hitchhiking, they are attacked by strange looking creatures living in the cavern.  They manage to escape, but find themselves in an even stranger world where everything from the landscape to the vegetation is alive, and out to get them.  But there is more in this “strange world” than what they would have expected, as Searcher runs into someone who has been living in this world for years; his father Jaeger.

Strange World is certainly a departure for Disney, especially after what they gave us with the movie Encanto.  It’s not a musical, and it’s far more pulp adventure than fairy tale magical.  This is a disadvantage that Disney is going to struggle to overcome as it’s contrary to their brand.  This is also especially difficult as Strange World is a high concept adventure film that is going to require a ton of world building that is not exactly easy to accomplish in a short amount of time that most animated features are allowed.  In the long run, this is where Strange World struggles the most.  It’s a movie that spends too much of it’s time building up it’s world, and it works against the other things that are important to making a movie like this work, namely the story and the character development.  Truth be told, the world that is built in the movie is interesting and quite unique, especially among worlds seen in other Disney movies.  But, world-building does not connect if you don’t have story and characters to make it come alive, and audiences will likely not care about how imaginative it is as a result.  In my opinion, I feel like the movie starts to lose it’s world-building touch early, as the kingdom of Avalonia itself is not terribly interesting to begin with.  It’s your generic steam-punk based culture with a Disney coat of paint.  The movie only becomes more visually interesting once it enters the “strange” sub-terrain world, but that’s quite a bit into the story when we finally get there.  What I think also works against the movie is it’s disjointed rhythm.  The movie has very abrupt tonal shifts, making it appear like the filmmakers didn’t quite know how serious or comical they wanted to be with this movie.  It’s probably why Disney has had better luck with their musical films, because there is tonal consistency with their stories.  All the while, despite feeling at times like a mess, there is still enough intrigue in Strange World that helps to prevent it from become a total embarrassment for Disney.

One thing that I do appreciate about the movie is that it is a big swing for Disney Animation.  The thing that I ended up being disappointed with on the movie Encanto is that it seemed too small in it’s scope; which was especially disappointing for a movie that was the landmark 60th feature for Disney Animation.  Strange World by contrast aims higher, at least on a visual level.  Encanto may have been more consistent in tone, but Strange World is far more of an ambitious exercise in its visuals.  It just feels big in a good way.  Where I think the movie really hits its stride is in the final act, when we truly discover what is really behind the origins of this world that we’ve seen.  What I ended up liking is that it worked in an environmental message that feels organic to the story and contains a twist that actually is provocative in its allegorical connection to our own world.  It’s where the story and visuals actually begin to connect in an effective way, and it works in service of the message as opposed to undermining it.  Working in an allegory about protecting the environment could have been easily mishandled and become very heavy handed, but here it feels earned, because it’s a message that the movie didn’t hammer into it’s story early on, but instead let it appear organically as part of the story.  If the movie didn’t have the abrupt tonal changes, which includes some rather jarring jump cuts, it may have made the message work even better.  That’s what happens when high concept movies don’t have enough time to immerse an audience into their world.  An animated movie like Strange World only gets 100 minutes at most to get the job done.  A fantasy film like The Lord of the Rings benefits from 3 hour plus run times that is more than enough to make an imaginative world feel lived in.  Disney ran into this problem before with the movie Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), another fantasy adventure that felt half-baked due to a short 90 minute run time.  Strange World fares a bit better by keeping the human story simple and the mythology not too dense.  But you can still feel the film struggle to manage it’s various elements as it tries to become a cohesive whole.

The characters in the story are a good example of this movie being a mixed bag.  Some of the characters are wonderfully well-rounded while others are frustratingly simplistic.  One of the movie’s brightest lights is the character Jaeger Clade.  You can really tell that  Dennis Quaid is having a blast playing this boisterous character.  Jaeger manages to be both the movie’s best comic relief as well as its beating heart.  He’s also the one character that feels truly original in this movie.  Most of the others are pretty archetypal by comparison. This is especially the case with Searcher, who just comes across as the typical try-too-hard dad type you see in countless other movies.  Jake Gyllenhaal gives a capable vocal performance, but Searcher is overall a very underwritten character that doesn’t stand out very well, especially in comparison to the character of Jaeger.  A large part of the film’s story centers around the father son story line that spans three generations.  It’s one that is overly familiar, but not entirely done poorly by the film.  It’s in the execution within the movie’s final act that the plot device manages to actually pay off, with the conservative approach of Searcher and the radical approach of Jaeger with regards to parenting manifests in the approach that Ethan Clade takes to making a change in the outcome of the story.  Ethan overall is another character that is both interesting in concept, but perhaps a bit underdeveloped in execution.  He certainly is an important character with regards to representation in the Disney canon.  Not only is he mixed race, but he’s also the first openly  gay character ever in a Disney animated film.  He’s not coded gay or has his sexuality downplayed with a passing mentioned.  The movie does just enough to make it feel like a more important factor in the character’s identity, but at the same time it also doesn’t make too big of a deal about it either.  I especially like how all generations of the family are aware of Ethan’s crush on another boy and it’s treated as completely natural.  Unfortunately, Ethan also suffers from a bit of from being underwritten, and he doesn’t stand out as well in the story as he should.  Jaboukie-Young White voice sounds a bit old for a teenager.  Beyond that, the rest of the cast is mostly passable or forgettable.  I do think Meridian Clade does manage to steal her scenes fairly well, with Gabrielle Union giving a lively vocal performance.  But, it’s a largely mixed-affair when it comes to the characters in this movie.

One thing you can count on from Disney no matter what story they are telling is high quality animation.  Strange World does not disappoint on that front.  The character animation is acceptable enough, with a definite comic book flair given to their character designs.  Again, it’s Jaeger who stands out the most, given that he’s the most lively character in the movie.  The real jaw-dropping animation comes from the creatures that come from the sub-terrain world.  There is a reason why all the creatures look the way they do, but even with that knowledge there is incredible diversity found in the individual organisms that we see throughout the film.  One of the biggest standouts is an amoeba like creature that is given the name Splat.  Splat is a wonderfully animated non-verbal character that has to get a personality across purely through pantomime.  It’s pretty clear that this was going to be the movie’s most marketable character, but to the animator’s credit he feels much more than a ploy to sell toys.  For a character with just a body and no face or discernible anatomy, he manages to convey personality through body language and that’s a challenge that animators love to undertake.  The same care is also given to all the other creatures that populate the film.  One of the best experiences in this movie is seeing how this unique ecosystem functions in harmony with all these living creatures.  Big creatures and small have their own function to play, and it’s fascinating watching how it all works on screen.  This is where the world-building actually comes across effectively in the movie.  The film’s use of color is also fantastic to look at.  They make amazing use of organic yellows and pinks in the “strange world” which contrast with the natural greens and blues of the kingdom of Avalonia.  The worlds of this film are certainly the biggest asset that the movie has, and it’s good to see the Disney animation team use their talents to their best ability in making them feel refreshingly alive.

It’s likely going to be a rough road ahead for Strange World at the box office.  With the corporation going through its own turmoil, it seems like more people are more interested in that drama than what Disney’s putting on the big screen.  It’s likely Strange World will nit change Disney’s current fortunes, but it could live on beyond its box office performance.  We’ve seen over time that Disney movies tend to have long legs in home entertainment, Encanto’s dominance in streaming being the most recent example.  Strange World unfortunately has too many shortcomings when it comes to story to make it stand alongside the very best from Disney.  At the same time, there is some appreciable animation found in this movie that makes it at least a visual feast worth checking out.  I do appreciate that Disney is not over relying on formula and falling back on fairytale musicals.  It’s a gamble, and one that doesn’t entirely work, but at the very least it’s original.  I’ll gladly take this over another Frozen sequel, and this movie is certainly light years better than Frozen II (2019).  I’d even say that it’s a more daring film than most of Disney’s recent offerings, but one that maybe outreaches it’s abilities.  As a film on it’s own divorced of it’s place in the whole of Disney history, I’d say it’s a perfectly fine animated film that presents some interesting ideas and an inspired imagination.  I also appreciate what it’s doing with regards to representation, especially for LGBTQ community, which really needs Disney as a steadfast ally in the culture.  My worry is that some people will label this movie as a failure because of it’s spotlight on queer representation and not because of Disney’s lackluster marketing of this film.  There is going to be a lot of talk about this movie, and sadly most of it will not be centered around the actual merits of the movie itself.  Strange World  is a valiant attempt doing something different, but it suffers from a uneven execution and unfortunate timing in it’s release during a wild time in the corporation’s history.  If you’re looking for something different and challenging from Disney Animation, you could do much worse than this, but those looking for some of that Disney magic making a grand return may just have to wait a bit longer, likely when Disney returns to it’s comfort zone of traditional musical entertainment.

Rating: 7.5/10

E.T. Phone Home – Spielberg’s Personal and Powerful Masterpiece 40 Years Later

Spielberg’s career as a filmmaker is without parallel in the history of Hollywood.  Ever since emerging onto the scene in the early 70’s, Steven Spielberg has continued to remain the most powerful name in cinema, without ever losing his footing in all the decades since.  He’s one of the men responsible for creating the blockbuster era in Hollywood, as well as an acclaimed director who has been nominated for an Academy Award in that field at least once every decade since the 1970’s.  He’s capable of creating big crowd pleasing spectacles like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Jurassic Park (1993), and West Side Story (2021), but is also capable of creating intimate and gut-wrenching dramas like The Color Purple (1985), Schindler’s List (1993), and his newest feature film The Fablemans (2022), releasing this week.  But, with a resume as packed as the one he has, how do we we narrow all those movies down to what can be considered the quintessential Spielberg flick?  Steven Spielberg is a filmmaker that puts his very being into each movie he makes, but there are certainly those films that hit especially close to home for him.  He has tackled movies that appeal to his left-wing political beliefs, movies that address his roots in the Jewish faith, and movies that speak to the things that meant most to him in his childhood.  He’s often been criticized for being too sentimental in his movies, but it’s the movies that he makes that are the most sentimental that often are considered among his best.  And there is one movie of his in particular that checks all the right boxes, and can be best described as the movie that is the most quintessentially Spielbergian.  That movie is of course 1982’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.

The story of how Spielberg came to be involved with the story of E.T. is interesting in itself, and it finds Spielberg at a crucial cross roads in his life and career.  In the 1970’s Spielberg was the hottest name in the industry with two back-to-back box office hits.  Those movies were, of course, Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).  Jaws is considered by many to be the first true Hollywood blockbuster, and alongside Spielberg’s friend and fellow filmmaker George Lucas with his film Star Wars (1977), the movie industry began to make a monumental shift.  With Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg proved that he wasn’t a fluke in the business, and he also demonstrated his skill tackling a more mature and daring subject on screen.  At this point, Spielberg looked like he would be the King of Hollywood for many years to come.  And then, reality came crashing into his world.  His follow-up to Close Encounters was the broad, slapstick WWII comedy, 1941 (1979).  While the movie does have it’s defenders, 1941 is considered to be Spielberg’s first flop, both critically and financially.  Steven took this blow hard and for the first time began to doubt his own talent as a filmmaker.  Today, Spielberg looks back on the disappointment of 1941 as the make-or-break turning point in his life; either he was going to weighed down by the embarrassment of his first failure and give up on Hollywood completely, or he was going to brush it off and try better the next time while sticking it out in the business.  Thankfully, Spielberg was pulled out of his slump by an old friend, George Lucas.  Lucas was eyeing a project based on old adventure serials of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and he wanted Spielberg to direct.  That action adventure project would turn out to be Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it would be the movie that introduced an icon known as Indiana Jones to the world.  This was exactly the movie project that Spielberg needed to pull himself out of his depression, because like Lucas, this was the kind of movie he grew up idolizing.  It allowed him to make something that was fun but also artistically pleasing.  And not only that, but it would offer him an unexpected bridge towards the next movie that he would work on; a movie that ultimately would be the defining movie of his career.

The star playing Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford, became good friends with Spielberg during the shoot, and through their interaction Spielberg also got to know Ford’s then girlfriend and future wife, Melissa Mathison.  Mathison was a screenwriter who had already achieved success with her script for the film The Black Stallion (1979).  Spielberg discussed with her the idea he had for a science fiction horror movie called Night Skies, and in those talks, he mentioned this concept of an alien that forms a friendship with a young child.  Mathison was so taken with the concept that she began to write a draft for a movie with that idea central to the story.  In less than two months, she had her first draft complete, just in time for Spielberg to see as he was wrapping up the shoot on Raiders.  The script, then titled E.T. and Me, completely enchanted Spielberg and was immediately interested in making it his next project.  He shopped the script around Hollywood, and eventually Universal Studios bought it for a hefty $1 million.  It took no time at all for Spielberg to move on.  Even while he was in the editing room for Raiders of the Lost Ark, he was simultaneously doing pre-production on E.T. and MeRaiders performed very well at the box office, which helped to put Spielberg back on the map as a filmmaker, and it also put him in demand in Hollywood as well.  Numerous projects were being pitched to him, perhaps the biggest one being his friend George Lucas offering him the directorial reigns of Return of the Jedi (1983).  But, Spielberg passed on all of them, because he knew there was something special about this one movie about a boy and his extraterrestrial friend.  Cameras began rolling in September of 1981.  The movie was comparatively modest in scale compared to films like Close Encounters and Raiders; shot in the relatively nearby L.A. suburb of Porter Ranch and with a cast of relative unknowns.  But, in the hands of Steven Spielberg, he would make this small little film into something grand.

For one thing, you can’t really talk about a movie like E.T. without discussing the little alien himself.  The creation of E.T. is a masterclass in utilizing visual effects to create the illusion of life.  There have been plenty of creatures created through visual effects that have managed to garner emotion from an audience, whether it’s King Kong, or the many stop motion creatures brought to life by Ray Harryhausen, or the masterful puppetry from the Jim Henson Workshop, including the incredible work done to create Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (1980).  But the creation of E.T. took creature effects to a whole other level.  To create E.T., Spielberg had a team led by effect wizard Carlo Rambaldi build an animatronic character that would be capable of a wide range of expression.  Rambaldi had already created the aliens for Spielberg in Close Encounters, but E.T. would be a far more challenging assignment.  They needed to have a creature that looked very alien, and yet was non threatening and in a way could be considered adorable.  And given the fact that he would be on screen for much of the movie’s run time, he had to be as lifelike as possible.  The head rig for E.T. alone featured dozens of individual functions in order to make E.T. come alive.  The hard work payed off as the E.T. animatronic not only moves in a very lifelike way, but it’s even remarkably capable of expressing emotion through performance.  This is crucial in the long run because you need to fall in love with E.T. just as the characters in the film do, and through the expert puppeteering of Rambaldi’s team and Spielberg’s careful direction, E.T. managed to steal all of our hearts.

Of course, where the heart of the story lies is with the bond that is built between E.T. and the boy who befriends him.  That role in itself was just as crucial to get right as it was to make E.T. come alive.  The role of Elliott needed to work with a young actor who could pull off all the emotional highs and lows that the story needed.  Spielberg managed to find that in a then 9 year old Henry Thomas.  Thomas compliments E.T. so perfectly in the film, managing to act with complete sincerity opposite what is essentially an animatronic machine in an alien suit.  Perhaps what drew Spielberg to casting Henry Thomas in the role was the expressive, wide-eyed wonder in his face.  There was a lot of Elliot that was drawn out of Spielberg’s own childhood, and it would stand to reason that Steven saw a lot of himself come through in Henry’s performance.  It’s in the most emotional beats, when Elliot has to shed some tears that Henry shows skills beyond his years, delivering emotional weight that leaves so many people in the audience balling tears themselves.  The remaining cast are also perfectly assembled in this movie, including Dee Wallace as Elliot’s over-burdened but well-meaning mother, Robert MacNaughton as his older brother Michael, and in her screen debut, a six year old Drew Barrymore as Elliot’s baby sister Gertie.  But, apart from the cast, the incredible E.T. animatronic, and Spielberg’s deft direction, there is one other major star of the film; the music.  Composed by Spielberg’s longest and most celebrated collaborator John Williams, the musical score for E.T. The Extra Terrestrial is what makes the film feel complete, and perhaps it’s what elevates it into legendary status.  Considered one of the greatest musical scores of all time, the music of E.T. takes this small, intimate story and gives it almost operatic weight.  The emotional beats feel all the more powerful with William’s score underneath it.  The emotional finale in particular will take your breathe away, as the orchestra swells up in an epic fashion, hitting those emotive beats hard.  Everything really worked together to make this not only a marquee film for Steven Spielberg in his early career, but also a movie that would forever cement his legend in the industry.

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial released in the Summer of 1982, which as I’ve written before here, was one of the most competitive summer seasons in movie history.  Going up against the likes of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Blade Runner (1982), and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) was not going to be easy, but Universal was confident in what they had with E.T.  Released in June, the movie not only excelled in competition, it dominated.  E.T. became the little movie that could and would end up smashing all box office records at the time.  E.T. ultimately even surpassed Star Wars as the box office king, and held that spot for 15 years, until James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) surpassed it.  The movie also went on to become an award season darling, garnering 9 Oscar nominations and winning 4, for the visual and sound effects and William’s score.  The success of the film also launched Spielberg into a different phase of his career, one where he began to branch out into different kinds of projects.  He would direct big crowd pleasers like a couple more Indiana Jones sequels, but he also began looking to more grounded dramatic stories as well; ones less tied to a supernatural element.  He created movies like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun (1987), both of which helped him to mature towards the kind of filmmaker he needed to be in order to make movies like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan (1998).  Even still, there is a bit of that sense of wonder that’s found in E.T. that permeates all of his films to a certain degree.  Spielberg’s gift as a filmmaker is to take his audience for a ride, often through the flow of his shot compositions, but also through the emotional journey of his characters.  When watching E.T., you see a filmmaker who already had the skills to be great story-teller figure out exactly how to use his talents to the fullest.  The Spielberg of the 70’s was a director caught up in the pressure of trying to prove his worth.  With E.T., he discovered what kind of director he wanted to be going forward for the rest of his career, and that was someone who could bridge two worlds together; the epic and the intimate.

When looking back on E.T., 40 years after it’s release, you can’t help but see it through the lens of everything else that Spielberg has made.  It becomes an even more interesting film in his filmography now after the release of his most recent movie The Fablemans.  Up until now, many have considered E.T. to be the closest thing to a self-portrait for Steven Spielberg.  Like Elliott, Steven was a child of divorce and he had to learn to grow up very quick as his life was turned upside down by the break-up of his family.  This is reflected in the story of E.T., as much of Elliott’s character is defined by his desire to have more control over his life.  That’s why he takes such a nurturing approach to helping E.T. find his way back home, because he wants desperately wants to help E.T. not lose his family after being left behind.  It certainly starts as an escape, but ultimately Elliott learns that he bears responsibility to be there for his family too, leading him to the heart-breaking reality that he’ll ultimately have to say goodbye  to E.T.  Spielberg of course never met an alien himself, but he found his own escape in those tumultuous times through his movies.  He not only spent a lot of time watching movies, but also making them with his friends.  That was his adventure as a youth, and it helped to shape him into the master director he is today.  This is far more explored in The Fablemans, which while it’s a fictionalized account of his life story, it nevertheless delves into the kinds of experiences that shaped him as a person.  After seeing The Fablemans, it’s interesting to examine it’s story in comparison to E.T., which shares a lot of parallels.  It’s clear to see that E.T. was the most personal movie for the longest time for Spielberg, and the one where he let us in to his soul for just a little bit.  It comes far more into focus now with The Fablemans giving us a more in depth look into Spielberg’s life.  It’s kind of fitting that this more auto-biographical film is making it into theaters just as E.T. is hitting this important milestone.  They are not exactly linked narratively or thematically, but you can feel the heartbeat of E.T. pumping throughout The Fablemans, making it feel like a spiritual successor, minus the alien.

Now 40 years later, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial continues to a cinematic classic celebrated the world over.  Even as the world has changed significantly, E.T. still has the power to enchant.  It’s a real testament to Spielberg’s abilities as a filmmaker that the movie does not feel dated at all.  Sure the outfits and appliances in the movie are definitively early 80’s, but the pace of the story and the emotional beats it hits makes this movie feel just as fresh as the day it was released.  The E.T. animatronic still manages to impress, even as we are still in an age of CGI dominance.  And I don’t think there is a more iconic image ever committed to the silver screen than that of Elliott’s bicycle flying across a full moon with E.T. sitting in the front basket.  It’s to this day the image used for the logo of Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg’s own production company located on the Universal Lot.  It’s a movie that is often imitated, but rarely matched, with maybe a movie like Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant (1999) coming a little close.  But, more than anything, it is the movie that forever positioned Spielberg into the direction that most satisfied him as a filmmaker.  He was always a filmmaker torn between wanting to stay young at heart, while also setting out to prove he could be taken seriously as a director.  E.T. The Extra Terrestrial proved that he could do both at the same time.  The story is an innocent modern day fairy tale, with a boy becoming friends with an alien, but it’s told with absolute sincerity and emotional weight, taking on serious subjects like divorce and the perils of life and death.  Grown adults can still cry when watching this movie alongside their children, and it’s an experience now that has passed on to multiple generations.  That’s definitely true in my case, as I was born only a month after it was released in theaters, meaning it was likely still playing to audiences as I came into this world.  I have only known a world where E.T. has existed, and like a lot of my generation, it’s a movie that has followed us as we’ve matured over the years, helping to define us as well.  Spielberg has gone on to define himself with many more movies both big and small, bombastic and serious, but as great as most of them are, I don’t think they will be seen as the most quintessentially Spielbergian film as E.T. has become over the years.  It’s that personal mark that sets the movie apart amongst his other films, showing us how well he can blend the fantastical with the personal, and deliver a movie unlike anything we have seen before.  As E.T. says to Elliott as the two say their goodbyes, “I’ll . . .be. . .right. . . here,” and he has continued to be there for all of us for 40 years, and hopefully for many more to come.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – Review

Out of all the success that Marvel Studios has had in the last decade, perhaps the most monumental contribution it has brought to the culture at large is the film Black Panther (2018).  Despite being a cog in the mighty Marvel Cinematic Universe machine, Black Panther transcended into a historic, full blown cultural phenomena.  This was a touchstone movie for African-American filmmaking, with director Ryan Coogler granted a large budget and creative freedom to present black culture on the big screen on a scale never dreamed of before, with a mostly black cast and crew in tow.  Coogler was able to present the cultural influences that shaped him into this mighty fictional world called Wakanda, the Afro-futuristic utopia from the Black Panther comic books, and bring a very African sensibility to the art and geopolitical themes of this world and mainstream it with the full blessing of Marvel Studios.  Suffice to say, of all the movies Marvel has made, none have impacted the culture as much as Black Panther has, as it elevated black voices in cinema to much higher degree, as the movie became one of Marvel’s highest grossing films ever.  It also in turn made it’s lead star, Chadwick Boseman, into an A-list star.  Boseman would continue to shine as the Black Panther in the subsequent appearances he made in the Avengers films, and he also began to shine in movies made outside of the Marvel banner as well.  But, in the summer of 2020, the world received the shocking news that Chadwick had succumbed to his private battle with cancer at the age of 43.  A life cut tragically short right when it was taking off into the stratosphere.  Chadwick Boseman’s loss left the world a much emptier place, especially in a year full of tragedy like 2020, and the question quickly arose about what it meant for the future of the character that he will be forever celebrated for: King T’Challa of Wakanda, the Black Panther.

Before anyone knew of Chadwick’s condition, plans were already set in place for a Black Panther sequel.  Ryan Coogleralready had his script written and a release date was announced at the D23 Expo in 2019.  But, plans were inevitably thrown into blender the following year.  Boseman was gone, and the world was reeling from a catastrophic pandemic, which delayed the film’s start of production.  Inevitably, the entire Marvel calendar had to be moved back a year, which had it’s silver lining for Ryan Coogler as it now gave him more time to work out how he would continue with this project without his leading man.  Working with the Marvel team on what to do, the decision that came forward became a surprising one for many.  The role of T’Challa would not be re-cast.  This led many to speculate how Marvel and Ryan Coogler were going to move forward with the franchise.  Could you make a Black Panther movie without Black Panther?  From the promotional materials surrounding the movie, it looked like the solution was to focus was to put the world of Wakanda front and center this time, with all the supporting characters from the original movie now being the focus of attention.  Also, the new threat facing the nation of Wakanda would also be a major factor in the story; an ocean based race of super-beings led by a mutant king named Namor.  The inclusion of Namor is significant because he is one of Marvel’s oldest and most iconic characters, dating all the way back to Marvel Comics Issue #1, but here he will be making his big screen debut into the MCU.  Despite the challenges put up against this movie, which included a struggling production shoot in the middle of a pandemic, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever managed to finally come together and is now ready to be brought before an eagerly awaiting fan base.  The only question is, does the movie manage to overcome the obstacles that were placed in front of it and rise up to the level of it’s predecessor or does it struggle to find it’s way without it’s mighty king.

The film opens with Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) frantically working in her lab to synthesize medicine for her brother T’Challa who has suddenly fallen deathly ill.  She tries as quickly as she can to do all that is possible, but soon her mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) enter the lab to deliver the terrible news; her brother has joined with the ancestors.  Wakanda enters a period of mourning, now finding itself vulnerable without their king.  Despite T’Challa’s sudden death, Queen Ramonda asserts that Wakanda remains a strong and independent nation, still closely guarding it’s most valuable resource, Vibranium, the super strong metal that among other things has been used to create things like the Black Panther armor and Captain America’s shield.  However, scientists exploring the Atlantic Ocean discover another deposit of the precious metal beneath the waves.  Their discovery unfortunately brings attackers from the ocean itself to disrupt the excavation of the Vibranium from the sea.  Among them is the sea people’s leader, a wing-footed flying super being named K’uk’ulkan, or as he is known to his enemies, Namor (TenochHuerta).  Namor, equally protective of his claim to Vibranium, approaches Queen Ramonda and Princess Shuri to offer an alliance, uniting Wakanda and his underwater kingdom of Talokan against the rest of the world.  As part of this offer, he wishes for Wakanda to help him seek justice against the scientist that invented the Vibranium finding machine that was illegally used in his kingdom.  Ramonda and Shuri don’t want to wage war with the rest of the world, so they decide to seek out this scientist in the hopes of guarding them from Namor’s wrath.  They soon discover that the scientist is in fact an MIT student named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne).  With the help of Dora Milaje general Okoye (Danai Gurira) Shuri manages to track Riri down, but not before the Talokan warriors working on behalf of Namor get to them first.  Both Shuri and Riri are captured and taken beneath the waves, with Okoye left to explain the situation to an already grieving Queen.  Ramonda, through her power and influence, seeks help from other allies, including American agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) and Wakandan agent Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).  With multiple forces bearing down on the nation of Wakanda, from Namor and the Talokans to hostile intentions from people working within the governments of other nations, can Wakanda manage to survive what is coming without their “protector.”

What I just described is merely the set up for the movie Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, as this is a very plot heavy film.  There is no question that this movie, due to the circumstances surrounding it’s production, had to do a lot of heavy lifting in order to ground itself again not just as a follow-up to the original film but also as a continuation of the MCU as a whole.  In the end, the movie does a commendable job of pulling things together under the harshest of circumstances, but it also suffers from some issues as well.  One of the things that it does absolutely perfectly, however, is honoring it’s fallen hero.  T’Challa’s presence is still felt throughout the film, and in a way that feels respectful to Chadwick Boseman’s memory.  It doesn’t go too far in dwelling on the tragedy, but does an adequate job of using that feeling of loss as a motivating factor within the story.  Each character has their own different way of dealing with the loss, whether it’s in Shuri’s distractions or Ramonda’sdefiance.  Each reaction to the tragedy informs how the story can progress in a variety of directions.  It also establishes how Wakanda itself finds itself in a position that it didn’t know it would be in; vulnerable.  This is also a Wakanda that has lost their king twice, first to Thanos and now to this sudden illness, and unfortunately there is no coming back from the latter.  It’s in looking at the degrees of grief that Ryan Coogler really finds the heart of this story.  He is very good at getting emotion out of his stories, so given the harsh hand he was dealt with, he thankfully had the skill and the imagination to weave that grief into his art without losing any of the magic that made this world work in the first place.

Where the movie struggles unfortunately is in it’s plot.  The movie is a beefy 2 hours and 41 minutes, the second longest film Marvel film overall (behind Avengers: Endgame’s 3 hours and 1 minute run time).  to Ryan Coogler’s credit, the movie never feels that long, but there are points in the story where the movie does come up a little hollow.  I think that this is due to having to juggle so many plotlines all at the same time.  Not only is he having to continue the story he set up with the first Black Panther, but he also has to incorporate what has happened in the larger MCU as well (especially with a 5 year time jump established in Endgame), as well as establish important new characters like Namor and Riri Williams, and the entire nation of Talokan and it’s entire history as well.  It’s a lot on his plate and despite Coogler’s best efforts not all of it manages to geltogether.  The Talokan part of the plot seems to suffer the most.  It feels like we merely get the cliffs notes version of their cultural history as the plot desperately needs to move forward, which is in contrast to how immersed we were able to be in the world of Wakanda in the first Black Panther.  Namor and the Kingdom of Talokan needed their own movie’s worth of development to really grasp the significance of their place in the world, but the movie unfortunately does not have time for that, even at it’s extended length.  The Wakandan side of the story also suffers because of that, as we don’t really see anything new from that world in this movie.  It’s been said the thing that unfortunately works against this movie is that we can no longer be re-introduced to the Kingdom of Wakanda again.  One of the most magical moments of any Marvel movie was that first glimpse of Wakanda’s mighty capital from the first movie.  Such a scene doesn’t exist this time around as now we are all too familiar with this world.  Not to mention there are side plots a plenty involving how Agent Ross is dealing with protecting Wakanda from hostile intentions within his own government, as well as the internal politics of Wakanda also coming into play, as Shuri has to confront more of her role in the future of her country.  Needless to say the movie buckles under the weight of it’s plot, but Coogler does manage to keep it from collapsing completely.

One of the movie’s best strengths is the performances of it’sactors.  Everyone, probably with the knowledge of the film’s significance in honoring the high bar set by Chadwick Boseman, brings their A-game to the film with some emotionally charged acting.  Though working outside her strength built up in previous appearances in the MCU, playing a mischievous supporting character at Black Panther’s side as Shuri, Letitia Wright does her best to bring emotional depth to the character now that she is front and center in this story.  Shuri thus far has been one of the more comic relief characters, being a carefree quartermaster to her brother with a slight proclivity towards mischief.  But this movie now has to put that character into the position of picking up the emotional weight of this journey with Wakanda and it’s connection with the Black Panther.  It’s not an easy shift to make, and you can’t help but miss the version of Shuri that was more comical in nature.  But, Letitia Wright picks up the challenge and manages to shine despite the obstacles.  She is also equally matched with Tenoch Huerta who brings the mighty Namor to life.  Namor of course comes with this long history behind him, but thus far he has yet to appear on the big screen, mainly due to some rights issues where Marvel had initially granted them to Universal Studios but the purchase by Disney made it impossible for Universal to make any use of their rights.  So basically, Namor can appear in a MCU film, but cannot star in one, similar to the deal regarding the Hulk.  So, this movie managed to work Namor into this story by making him the villain, as opposed to the anti-hero that he is in the comics.  Tenoch does a great job of making Namor this threatening presence but at the same time making him relatable given his tragic backstory.  In the end, they do the iconic character justice, even though he has to piggyback on the shoulders of another Marvel property.  Dominique Thorne thankfully brings some much needed comic relief as RiriWilliams and she steals every scene she is in.  It’s good that she stands out as well as she does given that she’ll be back in a spin-off series called Ironheart on Disney+.  Great performance come from many of the supporting cast as well including returning stars like Lupita N’yongo, Danai Gurira, and Winston Duke, who also brings some wonderful comic relief as M’Baku.  Of course the performance that most people will talk about is Angela Bassett as Queen Ramonda.  Ramonda has a more important role to play in this film and Angela brings some of her most powerful acting chops to her performance here, with some especially electrifying moments of Oscar-worthy acting.  In a series already known for stand-out acting, Wakanda Foreverraises the bar even more for powerful performances in the Black Panther franchise.

The production quality has also translated over from the original movie.  It makes sense as most of the same production team has returned.  Oscar winner Ruth Carter, the costume design genius who created the look of Wakanda with her award-winning designs is back and not only is she working with more of the look of Wakanda, but she also has the unenviable task of imagining the look of Talokan as well.  She has come up with some incredible designs for this underwater kingdom, taking cue from Mesoamerican influence.  One of the especially incredible designs she has accomplished in this movie is the re-imagined look of Namor.  In the comic books, Namor is merely defined by a green speedo and red boots.  For Namor in this  film, Carter has added an incredible metallic bead collar that hangs across Namor’s chest that really defines the majesty of his character.  In addition, when he sits on the throne in his kingdom, he wears a majestic headdress that really invokes this image of a Mayan god come to life.  Carter’s costumes also updates the look of the Wakandan citizens as well, including some truly majestic dresses that Angela Bassett gets to wear throughout the movie.  It’s stuff like Ruth Carter’s costumes that really help to set the world of Wakanda apart in the MCU.  Also returning to deliver even more incredible work is Ludwig Gorranson, who also won an Oscar for his work on the last Black Panther.  Gorranson, who has been busy as of late in other major franchises like Star Wars delivers the same Wakandan sound that we’ve grown to love, but also adds to it the unique sound of Talokan as well.  Remarkably he manages to capture Mesoamerican melody just as well as he does with African sounds and the mix of the two cultures really helps to underline the theme of that clash within the movie.  What I especially love about Gorranson’s work this time around is how he uses silence in his score.  Whenever memories of T’Challa come up in the movie, the music suddenly goes silent as if it too was showing it’s respect to the dead.  It’s an emotional wallop when you hear that wall of sound from Gorranson’s score suddenly go silent, understating the loss that’s felt by both the characters and those of us watching the movie.  The only thing that I think doesn’t work as well this time around is the cinematography.  Rachel Morrison, the DP of Black Panther was not available this time around, so the duty fell to Autumn Durald Arkapaw, who previously shot the series Lokifor Marvel.  Autumn is a capable cameraperson, but her sense of color schemes is less refined as Morrison’s, who managed to bathe the original Black Panther in a gorgeous palette.  Arkapawdoes competent work, but it makes the movie feel more in line with the generic Marvel film look that feels a bit too repetitive.  Otherwise, this is a solidly mounted production that mostly falls in line with the high standard of the Black Panther franchise.

Given that the Marvel Cinematic Universe reached a high-point with the original Black Panther, you would think that the bar would be set very high with the newest entry in the series.  This film, given it’s shortcomings, may end up being a let down for some, but in this critic’s case, I feel that some of those expectations were set a little too high.  I for one admire the first Black Panther quite a bit, but it’s not one of the all timegreats for me.  In my original review here, I stated that I had some reservations about the story while at the same time praising it highly for it’s world building.  Though I loved Chadwick Boseman’s performance, I thought the original movie lacked character development for T’Challa, as most of his character arc happened in Captain America: Civil War (2016).  It was the world around him that stood out more to me in the original movie, something that gets more of the spotlight this time around.  It’s sad that T’Challa’s story ends so abrubtly for us, but it can’t be helped.  We can’t bring Chadwick Bosemanback, and Marvel and Ryan Coogler made the choice to not recast the part.  It will remain to be seen if that was the right choice in the long run.  It wouldn’t have been the first time Marvel has recast a major character (Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, Don Cheadle as War Machine) nor will it be the last time (Harrison Ford replacing William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross).  Coogler decided for his story that Boseman alone was going to be his T’Challa and that for the franchise to progress it fell upon the rest of Wakanda to become future of the series.  I won’t spoil how the Black Panther itself is worked into that story, but there is a reason why this is still a Black Panther movie.  For the most part, it’s a commendable sequel that I think is pretty close to being on par with the original, but doesn’t exactly exceed it.  The performances are amazing, as is the production design.  And Namor is an absolute stand out villain that does justice to the iconic character from the comic books.  Perhaps with the difficult task of moving on from the tragedy of the past out of the way we may see a bright future ahead for this franchise.  It remains to be seen what that will actually mean, but the end credits promises “Black Panther Will Return.”  For now, Marvel and director Ryan Coogler have done a magnificent job of honoring the memory of Chadwick Boseman with this emotional tribute of a film and hopefully the future remains bright for Black Panther in the years ahead.  Indeed, Wakanda Forever.

Rating: 8/10

Focus on a Franchise – Planet of the Apes: The Caesar Trilogy

Back in the 1960’s, as the world became embroiled in a number of on-going tragedies, from the ongoing war in Vietnam to numerous assassinations of political and social movement leaders, there was also a major shift going on within Hollywood.  The mega-budget, opulent and airy musicals and epics that dominated the early part of the decade were suddenly out of flavor with audiences who now wanted what they saw on the big screen to better reflect the harshness of the world that they were currently living in.  One of the places that best represented this shift in a microcosm was 20th Century Fox.  In the latter part of the 60’s, Fox began to hit hard times as their expensive old-fashioned musicals like Doctor Doolittle (1967) and Hello, Dolly (1969) ended up flopping at the box office.  To better connect with a newer, more cynical audience, they had to adjust quickly and find a new type of movie to help salvage their brand into the future.  Strangely enough they found that film in a strange little science-fiction thriller called Planet of the Apes (1968).  Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, written by The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, and starring the king of epics himself Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes was a cultural phenomenon, becoming one of the biggest box office hits of it’s time.  The story itself is pretty simple, an astronaut lands on a planet where apes have become the dominant species, but it’s execution on all fronts (writing, direction, performance and especially score) that helped to make it resonate even more.  And then of course there is that legendary twist ending which has been parodied relentlessly over the years.  The success of the movie led to a series of sequels, though none made the same impact as the original film did.  For a while the franchise went dormant, though the first movie remained a mainstay in Science Fiction circuits.  Eventually, Fox believed they could do something once again with the property, which led them to greenlight a remake in 2001, under the direction of Tim Burton.  Unfortunately, that film turned out to be a colossal mess, neither capturing any of the cinematic wonder of the original, nor showcasing any of Burton’s trademark weirdness.  And once again, the Apes franchise was abandoned.

But, in the early 2010’s, a new team at Fox decided it was time to undertake another chance at rebooting the Apes franchise for a new generation.  This time around, the filmmakers would be utilizing the latest in motion capture animation to bring their apes to life. Fox approached Weta Digital, the New Zealand based visual effects studio behind the Oscar-winning CGI of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and sought their expertise to pull off a different way of creating life-like apes that evolve to be more human like.  With The Lord of the Rings, the Weta Digital team made ground-breaking use of motion capture to make their digital creations come to life in a way never before imagined.  The most astonishing achievement from those films was in the remarkable creation of the creature Gollum; a digital character so lifelike that it proved to Hollywood that yes, even a visual effect could carry a dramatic performance on screen.  Seeing how well the Weta team brought Gollum to life, Fox believed that this would be the best way to take their Apes franchise in a whole new direction.  In the original films, the way that the filmmakers were able to bring these humanized apes to life was through ground-breaking make-up effects, courtesy of Oscar winner John Chambers.  But, as impressive as the make-up was, there was still the tell-tale signs of the actor underneath the make-up that made the illusion work only to a point.  Now, with motion-capture, the filmmakers could take the movements of real actors and fix a photo-realistic digital skin of an ape on top of their performance.  Thus, Fox could have a Planet of the Apes movie where the apes indeed looked like the real thing.  But, as good as the animation would be, it would still be dependent on the actor who was performing the role.  Thankfully for Fox and the new Apes franchise filmmakers, they managed to get the actor who had plenty of experience performing within the confines of motion capture technology; the man who brought Gollum himself to life, Andy Serkis.  And as we will see, his contribution would launch a whole new era for the Planet of the Apes franchise with a trilogy centered around his character; the Ape known as Caesar.


Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Instead of following immediately after the last canonical film in the original series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), or after the terrible Tim Burton version, this new reboot wisely rolls things back to the beginning.  And by beginning, I don’t mean back to when the original film started.  For Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the story actually brings us to where it all began; before the Apes evolved into their humanized form.  We all know from the original movie that the Planet of the Apes itself is our own Earth after a cataclysmic even caused most human life to die off, with Apes rising up to become the dominant species.  With that knowledge in hand, we get to see how that apocalyptic future came to happen.  At the heart of the story is a chimpanzee named Caesar.  Caesar is discovered to have been born with unnaturally high intellect as a result of experimentation from the lab he was born into by doctors seeking a cure for dementia related illnesses.  Caesar is capable of communication with his caretakers through sign language and he displays evidence of critical thinking and human like emotion.  But, corruption at the lab leads him to be sold to a zoo, where he begins to turn resentful of the mistreatment of his fellow simian-kind there.  Eventually, he steals the drug made his brain more human-like and uses it on the other apes, leading them to revolt en masse.  Eventually Caesar does lead his band of apes out of the city and into the wild, but his actions also came at a steep cost.  The pathogen that increased the apes brain activity also unleashes a deadly virus on the human population, leading to a catastrophic global pandemic that plays out in the end credits.

For a reboot of this longtime franchise, this was a pretty successful end result.  The thing that really helps this movie stand out is the stellar performance of Andy Serkis as Caesar.  The actor, of course, disappears into the character as it is a digital overlay over his physical pantomime, but even still there is such skill in how he is able to bring so much personality into the role even through that digital skin.  It’s the subtleties of his performance that really sells his work here, especially in the facial acting.  Andy Serkis, when not performing in motion capture, is a very expressive actor physically, and the command that he has in his facial action is particularly on a different level.  Often the Lord of the Rings animators had to exaggerate the Gollum model in order to have it rise to the level of what Serkis gave them in his original on set performance.  Naturally, he refined this skill working within the confines to motion capture, and Caesar is a testament all those years of experience.  The one downside to his strong performance in this movie is that it outshines everything else.  Caesar is almost too strong of a character, as most of the human characters are flat or uninteresting.  James Franco is fine as the scientist that helped raise Caesar, but his character is more or less just a function of the story and has little in the way of an arc.  The one other downside is that despite the motion capture animation looking quite impressive throughout, the compositing to Caesar and the other apes into the scenes is still not as good as it could have been.  You are still very much aware that you are looking at visual effects, as the seam lines between digital characters and the real world environment still don’t quite blur.  Even still, for a franchise reboot that had a lot prove to audiences, it’s a commendable starting point.  And as we would see later, this franchise would not only survive into the new millennium, but thrive as well.


Directed by Matt Reeves

While Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a general, by the numbers action flick that did it’s part fairly well, Dawn would see the franchise not only reach it’s potential, but it would even supplant the original series as the most ideal telling of this story.  This was the Planet of the Apes movie that every dreamed about but was only now fully realized.  Andy Serkis returned once again to continue Caesar’s story, and this time the rebooted series would have Matt Reeves behind the camera.  Reeves made a splash a few years prior with his ground-breaking found footage film Cloverfield (2008), which showed his mastery in making digital effects feel incredibly real and life-like.  While the compositing of the apes didn’t quite work as well as intended in Rise, the animators thankfully were able to refine their tools to make the animation of the apes look better this time around.  The hard work paid off, because Caesar and the other apes are astonishingly well animated here.  The compositing is so good that it indeed looks like they are occupying the same space as the live action actors, with the seams basically gone.  Matt Reeves style of filmmaking is particularly well used here.  He does a great job of making the world look bleak and wild in this pandemic affected not too distant future.  The tone is especially set up perfectly in the opening scene of the movie as we observe the Earth from space, watching the lights go out on the power grid and the chatter on the radio frequencies growing quieter and quieter; a chilling representation of mankind’s downfall.  This is not the campy, minimalist version of Planet of the Apes that we’re all familiar with from the 60’s.  Reeves take on the franchise treats the premise with absolute sincerity and seriousness, and with the visual effects being as good as they are, that serious side to this story actually works.

Striking that more serious tone in turn elevates the concept of the story even more.  Before the franchise thrived off of it’s weirdness and campy elements.  Reeves took this franchise in a different direction, treating it more like a war movie, but with intelligent apes.  What’s interesting is that the movie manages to find even more character development to give to Caesar as part of his ongoing narrative.  In the last movie, we saw him lead a revolt.  Here we see him be a pragmatic leader, choosing to avoid conflict with the surviving humans as a means of protecting his community.  He’s fully aware of his status as a leader and here we see him use that title responsibly.  It’s very much in contrast with another ape named Koda (Toby Kebbel), who is very much out for cold-blooded vengeance, and thus he becomes the antagonist of the film.  Kebbel does a fairly good job himself in portraying Koda, especially with the gnarly character model put onto his motion capture performance.  It’s interesting that a couple year later, Kebbel would play another motion capture animated ape named King Kong in the film Kong: Skull Island (2017), a role that Andy Serkis also filled in 2005 remake by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson.  The one downside to the movie is that the live action human characters are nowhere near as compelling as the apes are; a problem that the first film also shared.  Even a great actor like Gary Oldman feels wasted in a thankless role that means little to Caesar’s own story.  Had the conflict mainly stayed on the rivalry between Caesar and Koda, the movie might have been less uneven.  Even still, it’s an incredible tonal reformation of this series, and one that really delivers on what a Planet of the Apes movie should be.  Where Matt Reeves really excels the most is in his portrayal of the action scenes, which have the intensity of a fully immersive war movie.  As we would see moving ahead, this kind of style would continue to build into an even more compelling portrayal of Caesar’s story.


Directed by Matt Reeves

Both Matt Reeves and Andy Serkis return to pick up right where Dawn left off, and not only do they match the high standard left by the previous Apes movie, but they also managed to improve upon it.  This concluding chapter in what would be known as the Caesar trilogy brings his story full circle to a satisfying conclusion.  What is left of humanity has grown hostile to the Apes who are rising in power, and now Caesar and his community finds themselves being hunted.  Leading the blood-thirsty band of mercenaries is a man known simply as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson).  In confronting the Colonel, Caesar is tested like never before, seeing so many of kin falling victim to the Colonel’s cruelty while trying to maintain his own restraint in rising above his own animal instincts.  What makes War work so much better than the other films in this reboot comes down to one important thing; compelling human characters.  Woody Harrelson makes the Colonel a terrifying villain, and one that especially raises the stakes of this series even more.  His introduction into the movie, where his troops invade the Apes sanctuary and begins to slaughter them is a particularly harrowing scene, especially with the eerie shadows they cast in the moonlight reflecting off a waterfall.  The movie also shows the great advancement that has been made in motion capture animation in the years since the reboot began.  The uncanny valley has been fully crossed and there is no visible seams that manifest that makes the apes look anything other than fully physical characters.  The subtlety of acting from Andy Serkis is fully on display through the Caesar model, making his performance all the more compelling.  The intensity of the performance also comes through, especially in the moment when he’s at gunpoint.  You see everything read through Caesar’s face in that moment, which is something that I don’t think would’ve been done without manipulation a decade prior.

The movie also closes the chapter of Caesar’s story in a satisfying way, while also at the same time setting the stage perfectly for what will inevitably be the beginning of the setting for the original movie.  Caesar doesn’t know the direction that the planet Earth is going to go with Apes now in charge, but his whole story has been about finding a safe place for his kind to call home, and the story concludes with Caesar in his final action, walking his fellow apes into a safe haven where they can build their future.  I think the reason why these movies succeed as well as they do is because of the focus they all have in telling the full story arc of this one central hero.  We don’t see much outside of Caesar’s own internal environment.  The vision of a decaying world is entirely through his own local community; mainly around the San Francisco Bay area.  There’s no intercutting to ape uprisings across the globe; none of that matters at all because it’s Caesar’s control.  This is his story, and it’s a credit to the filmmakers that they found such universal themes salvation, humanity and courage in just the story of this one important ape, and that they could maintain that story across a three film arc.  Sure, the setting of a decaying world is bleak, but there is hope in that story too as Caesar proves to be an aspirational figure of clear-minded civility in an increasingly uncivil world.  It is also interesting that this movie legitimizes the trajectory of the story into what would be the original film, and at the same time ret-cons the sequels it spawned out of canon.  Clearly Matt Reeves and company wanted to honor the movie that spawned the series to begin with, but with the skills they have now, they are clearly showing that this is by far the more fully realized version of this concept.  Regardless, for an exploration of just one character’s journey through this apocalyptic world, it is a triumph of a complete narrative, with Serkis’ performance being the key ingredient.

The Planet of the Apes franchise has an over 50 year legacy in Hollywood, but I think that it can be argued that the Caesar Trilogy of the 2010’s is the pinnacle of the franchise when it comes to storytelling.  With state-of-the-art visual effects making it possible for human actors to fully act within the skin of the apes they are playing, the artificiality that came from the original series goes away and we see the franchise brought to us in the most earnest way possible.  The trilogy started off solidly enough, but Rise was just an average action flick compared to the two Reeves film, which really elevated the Apes movies to the compelling epic dramas that they are.  They take the basic premise of these movies and strip all cynicism and campiness away, treating the Apes’ stories with the same level of seriousness that you would get from a war flick.  It of course is not just the director’s vision that makes that take on the concept work.  Andy Serkis, digging into all the acting expertise he has while wearing his motion capture suit, just brings Caesar to devastating life, complete with all the emotion shown across his face rendered in remarkable detail.  You really wouldn’t expect any less from the man who made Gollum leap off of the computer screen and into cinemas in a stunningly life-like way.  This trilogy is honestly a text book example of doing justice to a backstory in a prequel to the story that spawned it.  We know where the Earth is headed, with it being ruled by “damn, dirty apes.”  But what the team behind this reboot, and especially director Matt Reeves, showed us is that how the Planet of the Apes came to be is a compelling story in it’s own right, and one that features a surprisingly complex character at it’s center.  Is there more to explore with the world of the Planet of the Apes?  Time will tell what Fox and their new parent company Disney plan to do with this title in the future, but regardless, the Caesar Trilogy is a full and complete story that on it’s own proved that this was more than just popcorn entertainment; this franchise could indeed be a strongly themed, character driven drama on par with some of the best to ever come out of Science Fiction.