War for the Planet of the Apes
Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves
Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Karin Konoval, Steve Zahn
Is Planet of the Apes the best franchise going right now? With the functional but formulaic Fate of the Furious was fun but disappointing, the Marvel movies keep refusing to end satisfyingly, and the DC and X-Men universe films collapsing in on themselves (Wonder Woman, and Logan aside). To me, the Apes series is looking more and more like the best sequential movie storytelling of the 2010’s thus far.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes surprised us with its focused, character based approach to the Apes mythos. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was a worthy follow up, more interested in family dynamics and political power struggles than action set-pieces. War follows in this tradition, and though there is lots of violence, there is much less actual war than the trailer or title would imply.
The story takes place a few years after Dawn, with Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the rest of the highly intelligent super apes having fled into the forest. The humans, led by the elusive Colonel (Woody Harrelson), lead military attacks against them in an attempt to exterminate the apes completely. When Caesar is targeted directly, he sets out on a personal mission of revenge. This introduces the central conflict in Caesar’s character; can he defeat the Colonel without sacrificing his own moral code? Has he been consumed by anger, as his rival Koba was in Dawn?
You might be wondering if the movie can sell such a crises being experienced by an Ape, which is fair. But the movie does it so smoothly you never once think about it. Much of this is due to Andy Serkis, who is great here as Caesar, behind all the motion capture makeup. Though Caesar is now evolved enough to speak, Serkis still sells many emotional moments on his expression alone. Caesar has to make some tough choices here, and the conflict is all over his face, which if you watch this video, you’ll see is all Serkis. Special mention must also be made of the special effects, however, which even at the film’s most action heavy moments makes you forget about the fact that you are watching mostly computer generated characters.
One such CGI character is Bad Ape, the closest the movie has to a comic-relief character. Bad Ape is worth mentioning because he is a complete delight, and other than Caesar and Koba, is probably the best Ape character the series has produced so far. He is also the perfect ape-distillation of character actor Steve Zahn, who provides his voice, He’s not in the movie a ton, but he’s hilarious, despite his backstory being pretty depressing.
You may notice how I haven’t really commented on the quality of the movie yet, and that’s because I think how you feel about it will be determined by how you feel about its tone. In order to fully discuss the tone of the film, and where it’s greatest strength’s and weaknesses are, I feel like I have to go into spoilers. If you’re just wondering if I recommend War or not, I do, with the caveat that it’s much darker than you would expect. If you’ve already seen it, or don’t care about spoilers (I’m not spoiling anything huge, just want to freely discuss the film’s second half), please read on:
While the first half of the film is Caesar and friend’s search for the Colonel, the second half finds Caesar in an Ape work camp, where things start to get really intense. This is the strongest section of the film, but it employs some imagery that I think will make people uncomfortable.
In this section, the filmmakers use the iconography of countless historical atrocities is, making the apes avatars of many oppressed peoples from throughout history. The Holocaust, Vietnam war, the American slave trade, and even the biblical story of Moses are all used as visual reference points. While this worked for me personally, because it didn’t make the apes stand-ins for any specific group, I’m a white dude and I’m curious to see if everyone feels the same way. I’ll be looking out for different reactions in the weeks following the film’s release, and I’m not sure if there will be controversy over it or not.
If you don’t feel like a suffering group of humans should be compared to apes no matter the context, I understand. If you don’t feel imagery of real human tragedies should be used in a summer blockbuster, I totally understand. For me, War used these images with enough sensitivity and intent that I felt their use was justified.
What intent is that? Well…
Woody Harrelson’s Colonel isn’t in the movie much up until the halfway point, and I assumed this was because the filmmakers weren’t really interested in having a good villain, they just wanted to stay focused on Caesar. And while Caesar is definitely the focus, it turns out they were just being economical, because the Colonel solidifies himself as a great villain in just two scenes. After a harrowing moment of shocking cruelty, the Colonel invites Caesar into his headquarters, and in explaining his ethos, helps justify the violence we’ve just seen.
Part of the plot of War is that the “Simian Flu” that started to wipe out the humans in Rise has mutated. It’s starting to affect even the people who were thought to be immune. One of the side effects of the mutated flu, and the one the Colonel seems to fear most, is loss of speech. As the Colonel continues his monologue to Caesar on why the apes need to be eliminated, his true fear becomes clear; he’s afraid of obsolescence. The colonel doesn’t fear extinction, he fears an equal playing field. Without his advanced speech capabilities, he’ll be on the apes level.
Why is this significant? Because it echoes the rhetoric of so called “white-nationalists” (Nazis) like Richard Spencer, who are always talking about the importance of protecting the sanctity of the white race. Just like Spencer (and maybe someone else we know), the Colonel’s hate is based on the fear that equality will expose his mediocrity. He’s afraid to be that he is not a brilliant leader, but just an idiot riling up his men by making them shout dumb, macho nonsense. His failure to adapt is contrasted in another character, who contracts the disease but quickly leans sign language to better communicate with the apes. The colonel isn’t afraid the apes will kill him, he’s afraid that he won’t be the only one allowed to speak.
If it wasn’t clear enough at this point which leader the movie was talking about, the writers said screw it and just made had him build a wall. This wall is built by the very group he wishes to oppress, and then is shown to be useless a few scenes later when it is easily blown up. And if it wasn’t clear enough then, there’s a scene where Caesar escapes the Colonel’s lair by swinging on a burning American flag. It’s the kind of thing that would be annoyingly dumb and obvious if the writers hadn’t completely nailed Trump’s psyche.
To be fair, this movie was already filming in October 2015, so maybe the Trump parallels are accidental, but artistic intent only matters so much. As it is, War plays out like a frightening cautionary tale. If we elect leaders who are so obviously scared of change, what else can we expect but to allow them to de-evolve us? Use our primal fears to recreate the worst parts of human history. How can we even combat this? In Caesar’s arc, the film continues the franchise tradition of being staunchly anti-violence. Even when the violence in the film would feel satisfying, and even justified, the film portrays it as unpleasant and pointless. Why sink to the enemy’s level, the movie argues, it’s better to keep our humanity, to continue to evolve, even when the worst of us refuse to. It’s an argument I don’t entirely agree with, but it’s made intelligently and passionately in Apes.
While I have some minor narrative nitpicks, (I feel an escape near the end is a little too easy, and the movie takes too much time getting to the prison camp), overall this is a unique and memorable blockbuster, and is very worth seeing. We could use more dark stories that actually remember to be mature.