WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES: (De)Mastering the Closeup

This weekend had WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES coming out. I saw it last Thursday night, expecting another solid entry in this better-than-it-should-be prequel series. I did not expect it to be a film of the caliber that it is. WAR is drenched in skilled visual storytelling. I’m not gonna write a full review because I think 1) It’s strengths are mostly obvious and 2) I think going into the movie as blind as possible is good.

Beyond the astounding work done by WETA Workshop in bringing the physical features of the apes to life, the film is powered by the nuanced, digitally-captured performances of Andy Serkis, Karin Konoval, Steve Zahn, Terry Notary, and many others. I could go on about the wonderful things these performers do with what is on face-value a silly conceit, but to keep it short, they are at full steam, churning our most empathetic tendencies. The film has broad scope and ambitions, and these performers and technicians do so much to keep it pulsing with vibrancy, humor, and tragedy. Amidst the discussion of the performances and the technology that renders them, though, many of the movie’s other pieces can be swept aside. The score, the art design, and editing are stellar. And the direction by Matt Reeves is some of the best you can ask for in a film, much less a tentpole blockbuster. He knows his shit, guys.

But one of the coolest features of the movie, that I think isn’t being talked about too much so far, is its use of the closeup. That seems like it would be an easy thing to do, right? Yes, and no. As a basic cinematic tool, it is effective but prone to overuse. What I found special about WAR is that it employs tight closeups always to soulful effect.”Oh, this line/moment/thing is important. Better do a closeup on it!” is traditionally the mantra of filmmakers with no creative ways to enhance the visual/narrative relationship. Such a strategy is one good filmmaker’s tend to avoid. Reeves meanwhile, says fuck it, and plops the camera right in front of his actors’ faces routinely throughout this film.

This is pretty audacious because in the case of WAR, the constant use of closeup had the potential to be even more grating, coming off as a show-offy demonstration of the effects work and performances. But Reeves really knows what the hell he is doing in regards to framing characters for maximum audience connection. There is one scene in particular that I’m thinking of. Slight spoilers ahead.

Caesar (Serkis) and his ape companions are traveling to find a murderous human Colonel (Woody Harrelson in the creepiest role yet) and stumble across a seemingly abandoned human camp. There, the orangutan Maurice (Konoval) finds a little girl who will come to be called Nova (Amiah Miller). Maurice hears a sound, enters a room, and sees Nova hiding in a bed across the room. Reeves has Nova’s face framed in medium closeup, but just out of focus. Maurice’s entire entry into the room is one static shot that ends on closeup, as if from Nova’s point of view. When it cuts back to Nova’s closeup, she sits up and comes closer, into focus. And from here we have two tight closeups on these characters. The rest of the scene plays out as they both discover that the other cannot speak verbally. Maurice tries to sign to Nova, and Nova has a mysterious condition that renders her mute.

The relationship established here carries palpably throughout the rest of the film, and its because we feel the nakedness of this moment. Both characters come from a harsh world, each at war with the other. Maurice stepping both literally and figuratively into Nova’s world is an act of daring. Putting them in closeup naturally enhances this relationship. But why are Reeves’ closeups better than another director’s might have been?

I think it has something to do with the goal. In most cases, a closeup is to drive emphasis on a subject. This is a fine goal, but a simplistic one. What Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin have done is set their sights not only to emphasize their subjects but to de-emphasize everything else. In a normal scene, there is a master shot or a two-shot that establishes the spatial relationship between characters, and the closeups are used in juxtaposition to that shot. “Here are the characters, and here is what they are feeling.” But the scene in WAR doesn’t have a master shot. It’s just the closeups. Therefore, it functions not as an underline or emphasis, but a way of removing the characters from the space they occupy, making the scene solely about their relationship. The scene is so wonderfully intimate because you feel nothing but Maurice’s inquisitive, nurturing gaze, Nova’s vulnerability, and both of their isolation.

Sometimes the best filmmaking is just being able to show restraint. Providing little sights to bestow big feelings. And showing genuine restraint in a movie with hundreds of digitally-rendered monkeys fighting Neo-Nazis is something I’d call impressive.

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