WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
BY CHRISTOPHER HASKELL
AUGUST 2, 2017
“All of human history has lead to this moment. The irony is we created you. And nature has been punishing us ever since. This is our last stand. And if we lose… it will be a Planet of Apes.”— The Colonel (Woody Harrelson)
Andy Serkis’ Caesar is Jesus, Moses, and Willis all wrapped into one. Give the man his Oscar already. As if his motion capture performance of Gollum in “The Lord Of The Rings” trilogy wasn’t enough to prove his worthiness, this truly moving and utterly captivating turn as Caesar in “War For The Planet Of The Apes” solidifies it. I’ve been shouting it since 2011 when Serkis first played Caesar in “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.” The range of emotion and the depth of his character rivals some of the best on-screen performances of all-time and yet Serkis is hidden behind an extra layer of “digital makeup.” With the Academy refuses to honor him with an Oscar nomination, I fully expect him to receive a Lifetime Achievement award or a technical award at some point in his career.
In Matt Reeves’ second time with the Planet Of The Apes material, he draws off some of the best war films ever made, including “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket,” and of course, “Apocalypse Now.” The Vietnam War and these films seem to be all the rage in cinema lately, with “Kong: Skull Island” also being set around that war and borrowing heavily from “Apocalypse Now” as did “The Jungle Book” just last year. Strangely enough, all of these film’s references were to primates. “War For The Planet Of The Apes” even takes it a step further and writes “Ape-pocalypse Now” on the wall, with Woody Harrelson’s character even shaving his head Marlon Brando style and locking himself away in the shadows at one point, very reminiscent of Brando’s reveal in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece.
When we last left Caesar the ape, the war was beginning. Despite wanting to coexist with the humans, the antagonist ape, Koba (Toby Kebbell), made sure that did not happen, ultimately forcing Caesar to battle him and subsequently destroy him. But the damage was done, and the human army was contacted, leaving Caesar and the remaining apes to flee. In “War For The Planet Of The Apes,” the war is well on its way. The beginning visuals of the film, which were used predominantly in the trailers, shows off the lush greens of the forests that the apes have taken to for refuge. But the soldiers moving through the grass and trees are there to obliterate the ape population, with sayings on their helmets like “Monkey Killer.” The opening cinematography is some of the best of the entire film, setting the stage for this war-themed installment. Despite this human insurgency, the apes overcome, sending the surviving humans back to their camp as a sign that they are not monsters and with a message to their commander to leave them alone. The humans ignore that message.
Woody Harrelson plays a mysterious figure known as the Colonel, the human’s commander. His direct relation to the apes is a personal vendetta to end Caesar. When he mistakenly kills some of Caesar’s family instead of Caesar himself, our protagonist if given his motivating force for the rest of the film; revenge. Caesar parts ways with the bulk of his colony, minus Maurice (Karin Koboval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), who accompany Caesar on his journey to find the human base and the Colonel.
This stretch of the film is reminiscent of the Western genre. It’s not just the way the apes ride horses through abandoned towns and kick doors down, but the way our somewhat flawed hero sets out to exact vengeance. However, carrying machine guns and trudging through a mostly white, wintery landscape adds an excellent dissociation with that genre as well, which typically sees pistols or shotguns and a desert setting. It is here they meet Nova (Amiah Miller), a young girl who cannot speak. Her presence is not only to show the generosity of the apes and a compassionate connection to the humans but also adheres to the fanboys of the old series. Nova is the mute human female who becomes the primary love interest in the original Charlton Heston “Planet Of The Apes” (1968) and the first sequel, “Beneath The Planet Of The Apes,” played by actress Linda Harrison. Caesar and his band also meet another new character in “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn), an eccentric zoo chimpanzee who has been living as a hermit in an abandoned house. It is Bad Ape who leads Caesar to the human camp.
From here on out, the film takes a bit of a turn. Without giving much away, Caesar finds that his entire colony of apes has been captured and put into a concentration work camp, which acts as a fortress nestled into the side of a mountain. Caesar is eventually captured and tortured as well, still trying to lead his people but facing the Colonel around every corner. The Jesus imagery is strong, with Caesar demanding food and water for the apes and in return being tied up by the arms, very reminiscent of the crucifixion while fighting for the cause.
As a standalone film, “War For The Planet Of The Apes” would likely rely completely on the merits of Serkis’ motion capture, but with two strong installments leading up to this one, the emotions behind everything are that more intense. The death of Caesar’s loyal guard Luca would mean very little if we had not also followed his story through “Rise” and “Dawn” as well. The death of Caesar’s family members would also be abrupt and almost meaningless as far as evoking emotion, but because we’ve spent so much time with these characters, it all resonates that much more. Even the apparitions of the dead Koba, screaming at Caesar in his times of weaknesses, reminds us exactly where we’ve come from in the other films and what exactly has been at stake, at times even drawing similar lines between the two apes.
Much disappointment has come from the marketing of the film selling a different experience than the one given. Although most of the movie was enjoyable, what saddened me were the squandered possibilities. As one would expect, the majority of these franchises have adhered to the conflict tropes of man against nature, with nature being the ape. The humans did not understand that by testing their Alzheimer’s cure on primates that they would not only produce sentient apes but that they would also invoke the simian flu that would kill off most of the world’s population. Man not understanding nature and thus lashing out against it has been the primary theme. But the other films also explored a lot of what we could call nature against nature in the form of Caesar and Koba arguing over how they should respond to the human’s backlash, with Caesar wanting peace and Koba wanting revenge. That continues in “War,” in the form of the primates working for the humans. Former followers of Koba are now tasked as “donkeys” for the human army, helping to carry equipment and load guns. Red (Ty Olsson) is the main one, having interactions with our lead ape, where Caesar raises the question of whether the humans will kill him when the war is over.
The film falls apart in the aspects of man against man and man against self. Not only is the Colonel killing his men that fall ill with the new side effects of the simian flu but he is also facing some backlash from the commanding officer above him, as he and his men are being labeled extremists. These are interesting concepts, with the idea the flu is now turning the remaining population into speechless animals. The humans are ultimately responsible for their demise, which, if you wanted to make the case, could easily relate to what is happening with global warming as we speak. Again, these concepts are interesting, but unfortunately, an army of humans and an army of apes fighting would have made a much more compelling film.
In addition to being sold a different film, it falters in a few other areas. Even when the first trailer came out, I was unsure of Woody Harrelson in this role. Despite his range as an actor, he failed to deliver as the hard-edged, rogue commander. You wonder if someone else would have been better cast in this role. Another problem with the film was overindulging the comedy through Bad Ape. Many have been praising Steve Zahn’s performance, but I felt it was a bit jarring when compared to the previous entries. One could argue that this was the darkest film yet, with the end promising the obliteration of an entire species, and add in concentration camps, and multiple deaths and that comic relief from Bad Ape is that much more abrasive.
Lastly, the film wasted several beats throughout the film. One of the men that Caesar spares at the beginning of the film, named Preacher (Gabriel Chavarria), is a featured character with little to no dialogue. He is sold to be this impressive bowman and is caught glancing at Caesar on more than one occasion, a gaze laced with sympathy and questioning that is not present in any of the other soldiers. One would then assume that this character would have a payoff. Why give this person so much screen-time if he doesn’t have a more significant part to play?
In analyzing the film a little deeper, you could argue that he did play an enormous role. In the opening sequence, Caesar displays compassion in letting the surviving humans go, one of which is Preacher. In some of the final human scenes, Preacher is there to stop Caesar from escaping and is responsible for severely injuring him. If Caesar had killed Preacher at the start, Caesar would probably have fled the compound injury-free (in theory). Which makes the case that Caesar’s human-like compassion leads to his demise. My argument against that particular theory, however, is that there are so many instances where that is not the case the writer or director were trying to make.
Maurice’s compassion for Nova is what leads to her helping Caesar escape death, a scene, that although quite unfathomable, actually does provide some of the more emotional moments of this as a standalone piece. That particular scene also leads to a weakening of the Colonel in a way that eventually allows the apes to escape. So Maurice’s compassion is what gets them out of a jam. And if you want to take it a step further, in the previous films, Koba had no empathy and still met his demise. So there appears to be no real stand on what compassion as a primate gets you, thus making these particular moments with Preacher feel entirely wasted.
When the reboot of “Planet Of The Apes” began, many wondered if it was essential. Three films later, we have received one of the best trilogies of the last few decades. It also feels like directors, at this particular time in cinema, are unafraid to draw influences from the classics, which ultimately works in their favor, but I’m beginning to hope that not every director starts to draw from the same influences. Say what you will about “War For The Planet Of The Apes,” there’s no denying the brilliant cinematography of Michael Seresin, the moving score of Michael Giacchino, and the captivating motion-capture performance of Andy Serkis. There’s been no talk as to whether the franchise will continue, but I think they would be re-missed not to at least remake the original “Planet Of The Apes,” where the apes have taken over. There would be no epic reveal, as at the end of the 1968 Heston version, but it would still pay off exactly what we went through in this trilogy and would hopefully cover some new ground as this franchise has been doing. And whether Serkis returns in some capacity, having led his colony across the desert Moses style, he has, at the very least, set the bar incredibly high for anyone that dares to step into the lead motion capture role in any future installments.
July 14, 2017
“Planet of the Apes” by Pierre Boulle
Characters by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver
20th Century Fox
(for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images)