Overview: Two years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar and his apes find themselves in all-out war against a battalion of soldiers led by a mad Colonel. After suffering unimaginable losses, Caesar and a small group of apes set forth on a journey that decides the future of two species. 20th Century Fox; 2017; Rated PG-13; 140 Minutes.
Elegy Quest: There was a nightmarish thrill in the previous film in seeing gun toting apes ride horses through flames and take their fight to the humans in a cementation of their evolution. Perhaps it was because these apes, led by Koba, were against Caesar and the humans fighting against them were largely faceless and nameless that the violence could remain entertaining though viscerally charged. In War for the Planet of the Apes, the thrill is gone, and every act of violence brings nothing but dread and sadness. While the idea of escalation has defined the modern blockbuster sequel, War is crafted in such a way that we’re forced to wish for peace opposed to more bloodshed. We’ve become conditioned by the modern summer movie to believe that even in the face of a bigger, darker sequel, our central characters will largely remain undamaged, physically and emotionally. With this film, director/screenwriter Matt Reeves and co-screen writer, Mark Bomback, dispel those notions and not only deliver damage on both levels, but they make escalation hurt.
Our real world has changed in the time between the release of Dawn and War, grown darker, more violent, and more likely of facing an end long before the intended expiration date. Surely this accounts for some of this film’s violence being punctuated by unease. But a lot of that inward reflection and mirror gazing, which Apes franchise has always been founded on, succeeds here because Reeves understands that his evolution as a filmmaker holding the reins of this franchise is just as important as the continued evolution of the apes. The opening scene in which a group of human soldiers, aided by ape traitors referred to as Donkeys (the equivalent of house slaves) face off against a base of Caesar’s apes, is given all the tension and emotional impact as Spielberg’s Battle of Normandy in Saving Private Ryan. There was a sense of “this is cool as hell” glee in Dawn’s action approach, which worked in spades for that movie even in its concluding tragedy. But in War, as we see bodies falling from trees, apes and humans dragging already dead friends away from the firefight, and losses so severe that winners cannot be chosen, it’s clear that even in this science fiction realm, war is hell. But war is also more than violence and that is where the latest Apes excels.
Heavy is the Crown: The specter of Koba hangs heavily over Caesar. He is faced with the question of retaining his goodness, his belief in peace, amidst a war he must fight in order to preserve his people. After tragedy strikes close to home, Caesar knows the hate that Koba felt, and feels that he is unable to move past it without an act of revenge. Jeopardizing the safety of his people, Caesar rides out in Western movie fashion with a posse consisting of Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) to find The Colonel who destroyed his home. Along the way they add a mute human girl named Nova (Amiah Miller) and the self-depreciating but kindly Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) to their group, and both characters serve to show the scope of war’s toll. The film, punctuated by Michael Giacchino’s melancholy score, depicts war beyond battles, and beyond the genre constraints we think are there. War is isolation, it’s orphans, it’s survival, imprisonment, and it’s cultural erasure. While every physical conflict counts and has a toll, the crux of the war is the emotional conflict centered the characters, all of whom, on the side of both human and ape, are given a painful personhood.
Every motion capture performance is a thing of exquisite beauty, and we’re allowed to watch these apes learn to express themselves in a way that makes us appreciate our own human beauty and ability for understanding, which we so often take for granted. Andy Serkis brings an increased level of humanity to the role of Caesar, at times carrying the emotional weight of what is largely a dialogue-less film on his commitment to the craft. Caesar stands straighter, speaks as well as his human adversaries, and holds in his eyes all the pain that the last few years have bred. There is no gap between what we are made to feel for him than what we would feel for a human character with the same complexities. We’re made aware of every struggle Caesar faces in his personal war of doing what is right for his people and what is right for himself.
Madhouse: When Caesar’s apes, left without his leadership, become enslaved by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), Caesar is forced to come to terms with his failure. Captured, crucified, and plagued by visions of Koba, it is ego that Caesar must come to terms with and recognize within himself if he is to free his people. Ego is the very thing that damned the human race and continues to damn it. Harrelson’s Colonel is ego unchecked, a cross between Apocalypse’s Now’s Kurtz and Schindler’s List’s Amon Goeth. He fancies himself as a modern historical figure venturing towards delusions of deification. His army, the Alpha and Omega, share their name and symbol with the doomsday bomb in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. The suggestion here is that in the modern age, it is fascist leaders who hold rallies, aided by fearful and ignorant supporters who stand as our greatest, apocalyptic threat. The bomb is the self- unchecked, unlearned, and undisciplined, and The Colonel and his followers are that bomb. They act without precision, they cling to pieces of mantras and American military procedures, and a defaced flag, but ultimately are nihilistic in their destructive endeavors to perverse the human race.
There’s a line that Kurtz says in a recording early on in Apocalypse Now, “I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor,” that defines the feeling of watching War for the Planet of the Apes. Progress is slow, and painful, and potentially deadly. We watch both Caesar and The Colonel make their way across this razor in a battle where the only victory is the least physical damage obtained to themselves and their people. Like the Apes films that preceded it, both the ones that form this modern trilogy, and the original series of films, there is no easily charted path in War for the Planet of the Apes. We can choose to look at disgust upon the humans in this film and cheer for the apes, but the truth is that they are both reflections of us, and as a result of war, neither side gets away unscathed.
Overall: Matt Reeves crossed the threshold into the “Forbidden Zone” of the modern blockbuster, delivering a genre film that handles war as seriously, and as emotionally devastating as any film based in historical fact. Aided by brilliant production design, and what may end up being the best leading performance of the year so far, War for the Planet of the Apes is a stirring achievement that asks us to choose compassion.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox