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Film Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017; Directed by Matt Reeves)

The contemporary Planet of the Apes reboot series began dodgily but has grown in stature to become one of Hollywood’s most finely-crafted and emotionally-involving entertaining blockbuster narratives. It has also become perhaps the clearest clarion bell of bruised and battered American liberalism’s defeated cynicism when faced with their nation’s social and political future. Rise of the Planet of the Apes located the seeds of a catastrophic collapse of human civilization in well-meaning medical science research and the arrogant paternalism felt by a “superior” species for an “inferior” one (reflecting imperialist patterns of thought dating back to Ancient Rome). Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was a surprisingly sophisticated exploration of how conflict between communities, societies, and/or nations is made inevitable by geography, resource disparity, cultural difference, and past antagonisms, and those who seek power by capitalizing on these thornier ends of social and political relations have a natural edges over the voices of moderation and tolerance.

War for the Planet of the Apes concludes this increasingly resonant franchise trilogy by extending those previous themes and introducing new ones: the limits of mercy and forgiveness, persistent echoes of colonialism and slavery, and the potent appeal of charismatic hyper-masculinized authoritarianism in times of deprivation. Its release date, months into an American presidential administration rife with decadent, corrupt rot and unsettling intimations of fascistic discrimination against the vulnerable, might be a coincidence of timing. But War feels like a film of the now, a tapping of dark, doubtful anxieties about the positive potential of the American project from across the political spectrum.

This feeling is summarized in a single image during the action climax: conflicted, heroic ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) escaping an explosion by sliding down a burning American flag, which has been defaced with the classically-derived, religiously-inflected logo of a testosterone-dripping fascist military faction known as Alpha-Omega. This violent, take-no-prisoners battalion of soldiers is commanded by the bald-pated Colonel (Woody Harrelson), who targets Caesar for assassination and his ape community for enslavement and then extermination. The Colonel is also at odds with the remains of the U.S. Army of which he was a part, dissenting about the firmness of methods required to respond to the simian flu virus that wiped out most of the human race, with what he believes to be a mutated strain of which now threatening to further reduce the capacity of the survivors to endure.

Having defeated an internal insurgency spearheaded by radicalized ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) in Dawn, Caesar is still haunted by Koba’s bloody ghost like some simian Hamlet. Like both the Prince of Denmark and the hardline Koba, the latter whose choices are pointedly compared to his own by his wise orangutan consigliere Maurice (Karin Konoval), Caesar is also unable to surmount his personal thirst for revenge after the Colonel inflicts a heartbreaking loss on his family. Instead of leading his people on an exodus from their hidden home in the woods of Northern California to a fertile promised land, Caesar departs on a near-suicidal mission of reprisal against the Colonel and his soldiers (imagine if Moses, instead of leading the Israelites out of Egypt, took along a few thug stonecutters to curbstomp the Pharoah). Along the way, he encounters a mute angel-faced girl (Amiah Miller) whose condition hints at the fate of humans feared by the Colonel, as well as a slightly soft-headed eccentric hermit chimpanzee (Steve Zahn) who can help Caesar find his new sworn enemy at a former internment base at the northern border of the Golden State.

This material, silly as it could seem, is treated with intelligence and seriousness by director Matt Reeves, who also helmed Dawn, and star Andy Serkis, who has trained and shepherded along a cadre of actors in the motion-capture process that he developed with the special-effects wizards of Weta Digital while playing Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (the visual effects supervisor of those films, Joe Letteri, joins him again here, and Weta Digital handles the computer animation). The detail of performance discernible in the bodies and especially the faces of Caesar, Maurice, and the other apes is remarkable; Caesar features in several tense scenes of emotionally dynamic and subtextually dense material opposite Harrelson’s Colonel that play onscreen as seamlessly convincing exchanges between intelligent beings. Serkis has developed this process into an art form, no mere tech gimmick but an essential element of involving storytelling and emotional engagement. But it is not a merely technical but a performative achievement: Caesar is an ape imbued with the mental and emotional complexity and tragic dimensions of a full person. It’s a great performance by Serkis, not just an impressive CGI trick.

This effusion of praise aside, I’m not certain that War is particularly a better film than Dawn, though I’d be willing to tentatively judge that it equals its impact. Reeves and his cinematographer Michael Seresin craft impressive visuals, including trans-mountain ape migration helicopter shots, the snow-covered interior of an abandoned opulent alpine hotel, and a spectacular closing battle and cleansing natural disaster. But Caesar’s special revenge mission feels like an extended plot stalling tactic as well as an out-of-character abandonment of his responsibilities to his followers. Some aspects of the ape colony’s escape from the clutches of Alpha-Omega are also difficult to buy into, and one must reluctantly admit that the promised titular war is essential a single belated skirmish.

War‘s political themes are more robust than its plotting. Reeves, who co-wrote the script with Matt Bomback, builds in a subaltern element in the form of apes who desert Caesar’s faction to serve the human army as “donkeys” (a derivative term from the soldiers’ Vietnam-reminiscent slang for the apes: “kongs”). Branded and graffitied, the donkeys enforce the subjugation of the captured apes (Caesar works to convince one of them, a gorilla named Red played by Ty Olsson, to join him in ape solidarity), who are made to labour to build a wall to protect the mutinous Alpha-Omegas from the incoming onslaught of the main army. The slave labour of this arrangement leads to a Spartacus-like act of resistance from Caesar, which in turn inspires a Christ-like punishment of the ape leader. Furthermore, like Judeo-Christian patriarch Moses, Caesar glimpses the promised land of his apes, but does not enter it.

In addition to these biblical echoes, a sharp distinction in the moral dimensions of mercy separates Caesar from the Colonel. Caesar, his moral compass formed in an initial familial unit in Rise and then in communal inter-reliance in his ape colony, understands mercy as both a basic display of kindness and empathy and a mechanism of signalling of good intentions; it is not only a fundamental good for Caesar, it’s sound strategy too. For the Colonel, the desperation of humanity’s plight refigures mercy as a pitiless purification of weakness; it’s a brutally practical act for him, absent of moral calculation, which he dismisses as clouded emotionality. The Colonel’s exhortation towards purity and calls for the elimination of weakness is fundamentally fascist in character. Defining his embattled faction as strong and pure in opposition to the sickness of other humans or the beastial nature of the apes unites his men in a shared identity. And like any imagined American strongman worth his salt, he reaches for the easy jingoism of patriotism and faith to shore up his power base, his iron-fisted dictatorial rule buttressed by the flag and the cross.

War for the Planet of the Apes takes its time to unveil these implications, and its relative paucity of unity and coherence between narrative, characters, and themes when compared to the preceding film in the series might account for the hesitation in pronouncing it a step up from Dawn. Nonetheless, it’s a powerful-enough closing chapter to a trilogy that imagines a besieged, discriminated underclass rising up against a small-minded, exploitative elite whose self-enriching arrogance presaged apocalyptic social and biological collapse. These Apes movies have always encouraged audience identification and sympathy with the apes rather than the humans, an alignment that reveals a deep-seated scepticism about the promise of neoliberal capitalist democracy. How fitting for this tripartite vision to close as our world begins to catch up with its critical perspective.

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