War for the Planet of the Apes, 2017.
Directed by Matt Reeves.
Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller, Judy Greer, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Michael Adamthwaite, Gabriel Chavarria, Max Lloyd-Jones, Sara Canning, Aleks Paunovic, and Chad Rook.
After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind.
If you have come to War for the Planet of the Apes seeking lighthearted and joyous escapism, you have come to the wrong Hollywood blockbuster. However, what will be found is a dark, morbid, depressing exploration of war, anger, genocide, survival, and morals. To be fair, it’s par for the course with this franchise (director Matt Reeves returns to the director’s chair after helming the remarkable Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). Why depict soldiers and apes savagely harming one another without any dramatic weight and hefty consequences? More studio tentpole blockbusters should ask this question, as audiences deserve emotion and stimulation just as much as gonzo action spectacles. It is possible to have your banana cake and eat it too.
Okay, no more cheesy jokes, as there are very harrowing themes to discuss here. Picking up two years after Koba’s human-ape trust shattering actions in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and 15 years total after the initial viral outbreak that was seen in Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar is rumored to be commanding a base of apes deep in the woods, and technically he is, but in reality he’s drained from the never-ending fighting. Early in the film, what remains of the US Special Forces apparently has a bead on Caesar’s jungle outpost. Both factions manage to get involved in a scuffle with casualties from both sides, however, the simian leader lets the captured humans from the confrontation go. Caesar and the rest of his evolved brethren aren’t savages, they’re peaceful beings capable of socializing and maintaining a shared society with humankind, but unfortunately suffering oppressive consequences due to Koba’s inability to forgive and/or quench his desire for revenge on mankind. The actions of one don’t stand for a whole.
Once the Colonel (a skin-headed Woody Harrelson oozing menace that employs nasty tactics to ensure the survival of his species) of the aforementioned US special forces (tasked with annihilating all apes, starting with their legendary chief Caesar) reaches this stronghold home… something very bad happens (I don’t want to spoil it) that sets Caesar on the same path as Koba. Much of War for the Planet of the Apes is a complex study of Caesar battling inner emotions, struggling to side with leading his loyal followers to a new and improved home or exacting revenge. Admittedly, it’s a bit too on the nose watching Caesar have nightmarish visions of Koba speaking to him subconsciously (we understand the war raging in his mind that is pulling his way of thinking apart by the second just fine from witnessing interactions with his most trusted companions and the ridiculously out of this world bar-setting impressive motion capture and facial expressions from Andy Serkis), but it raises difficult questions to ponder regarding loss and vengeance.
Thankfully, the script also manages to explain humankind’s point of view. The Colonel is a straight up cretin and there’s no way around it, but that’s what makes it all the more astonishing when audiences are able to sympathize to a degree with the tragic events in his life stemming from the devastating outbreak that has brought him to these extreme measures. With that said, quite possibly the crowning accomplishment of War for the Planet of the Apes is that, although the humans are definitely depicted as horrible people (I’m getting to that soon), the war itself falls in a morally gray area. The humans are still in the wrong, but it’s understandable why they want to eradicate monkey-kind.
Love and peace for one another ultimately have to win out. During the first act of the film, the small group of longtime friends assisting Caesar on his quest for vengeance come across a mute child girl and choose to care for her after being forced into murdering her hateful, trigger-happy father. It sounds silly on paper and believe me, I still have some questions, but the idea of apes caring for a human expresses so much regarding just how sentient the animals have become. It’s also a beautiful message to overlook our differences and to try making things work. If apes can care for this young girl as she too comes to understand them, it’s a resounding cry that war is not the answer. Not only does Amiah Miller give a strong debut performance (as a mute character and a child actor!), but certain moments with her and the apes are beyond adorable and touching. Good luck not having your feelings thrust-kicking during a scene featuring a pink flower.
The film also delicately handles allegories to slavery in multiple ways. First, there are apes known and tagged as “Donkeys” that are basically the ones left over from Koba’s betrayal and demise. They help out the human soldiers as they have nowhere to go, but it’s safe to say that they are still doomed. In addition to that, a large portion of the movie focuses on humans using captured apes as slave laborers to build a wall (you can go crazy with the political comparisons on this one) in preparation for an incoming battle with another group of soldiers that hate the Colonel’s methods just as much as they fear the monkeys. Not one to hold back from anything, there are also scenes of Caesar being tortured and brutally whipped to keep everyone else in line. If you think it can’t get worse, trust me, it does. No boundaries are off-limits, leaving many scenes downright shocking in their riveting nature
Now sounds like the perfect time to bring up the inclusion of a new simian known as Bad Ape (voiced by Steve Zahn), because after the above we need to talk about something a little more upbeat. Bad Ape is essentially a zoo animal (presumably under the assumption that it’s his name as a way of the writing attacking unethical animal care at certain establishments) that has learned how to speak from being around humans, albeit nowhere near as crisp and knowledgeable as Caesar. It’s more like listening to a five-year-old talk, but the entire character allows for both social commentary and some slight comedic relief from some of the film’s bleakest moments. He serves his purpose well joining Caesar’s primal entourage on their journey.Still, as previously mentioned, this is a very dark experience almost exclusively fixated on mature themes.
There are so few human characters this time around that much of War for the Planet of the Apes plays out like a silent film built on sign and body language. Mute dialogue here is highly captivating thanks to what has to be the best CGI to ever grace a film. During the beginning, it is actually a bit distracting just how photorealistic and lifelike the apes are, especially when subtle effects such as snow falling and grazing their fur are presented. The filmmakers clearly have a strong grasp on how good the technical wizardry is, as a lot of these emotional moments utilize close-up facial shots to show off just how good the motion capture is at expressing the mindset of each digital creation. Environments are also gorgeously captured as the creatures trek across various landscapes both high and low, and even find themselves facing a snow-filled winter. Also, the original score by Michael Giacchino (Lost, Up) absolutely deserves mentioning as it heightens the emotion on display, especially for the most impactful scenes.
For as thought-provoking and sophisticated as the narrative is, there are a few missteps along the way. Even considering an ambush, it’s a bit difficult to accept that soldiers can round-up such a massive amount apes in one location for their aforementioned slave labor, but it’s also easy to forgive considering that much of the plot hinges on it and the resulting inhumane treatment that comes from the humans. History truly is doomed to repeat itself. Also, parts of the climactic battle feel a bit too fortuitous for the apes, but will be quickly forgotten as the ending shot is an everlasting one that fully completes the canvas of the Apes trilogy as one of the best of all time.
Yes, together apes are strong, but even more important to take away is that we are all stronger when we put aside our differences, put an end to war, and work together to make the world a better place worth residing in. War for the Planet of the Apes is poetic blockbuster storytelling, the kind we don’t see enough of anymore. Director Matt Reeves continues to excel handling delicate subject material, which should definitely bode well for the DC Extended Universe and his upcoming take on the Caped Crusader with The Batman.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★