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The Sound of Not-Quite Silence: The Era of Dialogue-Lite Blockbusters

There are several remarkable things about the blockbuster slate for 2017. The most obvious is that the blockbuster slate for 2017 is remarkably strong.

It is definitely the strongest slate of summer releases since at least 2012, if not 2008. Sure, there have been misfires like CHiPs or Baywatch or Transformers: The Last Knight, but there has also been a lot of great stuff. Wonder Woman, Baby Driver, War for the Planet of the Apes, Dunkirk, The Big Sick. Going back to earlier in the year, there is a fine selection of genre material. Get Out, Logan, John Wick: Chapter II. Even the second-tier blockbusters like Kong: Skull Island, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 are relatively solid.

However, there is also an interesting trend in how these stories are being told. In particular, the summer blockbusters of 2017 are quite interesting on a formal level. In particular, these blockbusters are very invested in non-verbal storytelling. While the superhero movies of the summer – Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming – still conform to a familiar structure of dialogue-driven exposition, a lot of the other films tend to be quite light on conventional dialogue, relying on other ways of communicating character, story and theme.

This is most obvious with War for the Planet of the Apes and Dunkirk, impressive blockbusters that feature a number of extended dialogue-light scenes. When the characters do communicate, it is often in unconventional ways; the technical dialogue plays beneath the soundtrack in Dunkirk, while the apes communicate through sign language in War for the Planet of the Apes. In some ways, Baby Driver is also part of this trend. It is a movie that features dialogue, but is largely driven by its soundtrack. It characters often seem to speak in pulp clichés, with movie’s individuality shining on Baby’s iPod.

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Non-Review Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

The most evocative image in War for the Planet of the Apes is the United States flag, with an alpha and an omega scrawled across it.

This thematic juxtaposition is repeated throughout the film. The antagonistic human forces at the heart of War for the Planet of the Apes use the symbols as a logo. When they recruit apes into their ranks, they brand them with the symbol. When the audience is invited into their camp around half-way through the film, an oil tanker is marked the graffiti “the end and the beginning.” In some ways, this is a reflection on War for the Planet of the Apes as the final movie in a prequel trilogy, but it is also a much stronger thematic statement.

Cool customer.

At the heart of War for the Planet of the Apes is the idea that the apocalypse is not scary because it represents the end of something, but that the collapse of civilisation is so unnerving because it represents a clear slip backwards. The apocalypse threatens mankind with the idea that people are nothing more than animals, no better than their ancestors when push comes to shove. The apocalypse suggests that everything that has been accomplished can be lost in an instant. In the end, people retreat back to what they truly were, and it is horrifying.

War for the Planet of the Apes is not so much a movie about the collapse of a civilisation as a grim argument that the very idea of civilisation is transient and illusory.

Take a bow.

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