Planet of the Apes has always been our most cynical popular sci-fi franchise, weaving through each entry the idea that we humans deserve everything coming to us, and are responsible for bringing the world down on top of ourselves. War for the Planet of the Apes continues the tradition, putting this series’ tribe of simians through the worst that humanity has to offer them.
Beginning with Rise, this story has taken the shape of an uprising narrative, combining elements from the biblical account of Jewish exodus, African-American slavery, and – in War – the Vietnam War, and internment ranging from ICE to the Holocaust. It’s a veritable smorgasbord of humanity’s greatest inhumanities; and there are moments when the cynicism becomes overwhelming. The villains would appear almost as caricatures if it weren’t for the historical record giving these metaphors an unfortunate basis in reality.
Between Dawn and this movie, Caesar (Andy Serkis) has been hiding in the woods with his fellow primates, fighting off the humans that seek them out, and sending as many as they can back alive to tell their leaders to leave them alone. But following one of these skirmishes, a human strike-team, sent by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), comes back at night and slaughters Caesar’s wife and child. Caesar sends the rest of the apes to a new, safe, location to rebuild while he seeks his vengeance on the man who took his family from him.
However, while he tracks down the Colonel, the Colonel finds and rounds up the rest of the apes – and eventually Caesar, trapping them in a concentration camp where he forces them to build a wall protecting him and his radical Alpha-Omega cultists from an invading army from the north.
War is unrelenting with its allusions to history’s greatest atrocities. The first picture of the movie is of the back of a soldier’s helmet as he leads his platoon through a forest; the words “Monkey Killer” sprayed onto the back of it immediately recalling both the American history of racial violence against black people, and the Vietnam war. Like with the latter, the humans – though equipped with far superior weaponry – are fought back by their “primitive” foes. Later, in the concentration camp, the Apes build a wall while the Star Spangled Banner blares over speakers.
But more striking than the visuals is just how terrible the humans can be – not just to apes, but each-other – especially compared to how the Apes treat the humans. A running theme in the movie is the significance of communication to civilization, and a stark contrast is made here between the Apes and the humans. The Apes communicate using a combination of spoken English, sign-language, or grunting, with Apes of all different species and education able to communicate using one or more of the methods, or by having another Ape translate. Maurice (Karin Konoval), Caesar’s right-hand Orangutan, is even to communicate with an adorable mute human orphan girl (Amiah Miller) through his sign-language after she’s left by other humans. And, of course, being able to communicate silently is a boon to the Apes when they have to plan and coordinate their great escape.
Meanwhile, the cult of humans we see communicate exclusively through spoken language, and perceive the lack of ability to do so as primitive – a disability worthy of culling. The Colonel even goes as far as to murder his own son once he becomes unable to speak (as a result of an ape-borne disease). This culling of the handicapped isn’t just a monstrous behavior for the sake of thematic consistency, but also reminds us of the treatment of the disabled under fascistic regimes.
The Colonel’s murder of his own son also plays into the dichotomy set-up between him and Caesar. Through these movies, Caesar has been set up as a Moses figure: an orphan given great knowledge and the ability to lead his people out from under oppression and to a holy land. (Coincidentally, Moses had a speech impediment.) Meanwhile – and also in the vein of another cinematic colonel fighting an enemy in a jungle – the Colonel fashions himself as a New Testament God, the Alpha and the Omega who killed his own son for the salvation of his followers.
I’m really just scratching the surface here, and it’s jaw-dropping how dense and confrontational this franchise Hollywood summer release was allowed to get. And besides all that, the movie is gorgeous. The CGI Apes are well past the uncanny valley, able to give fulfilling and sympathetic emotional performances as well as the human actors. Oh, and give Andy Serkis a god-damned Oscar already, I swear. Reaves frames his scenes for maximum awe, dealing equally in both sublime and horrific imagery, even if he may overdo it with the dramatic rain at points. And watching the action scenes in this movie, he’s someone I trust to make one hell of a Batman movie. He understands how to make a sneak attack feel as good to witness as they are to perform in stealth games like the Arkham franchise.
War‘s one real sticking point for me is an issue of tone. This movie introduces a comedic relief character, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), who induces a tonal whiplash almost every time they cut from a scene of the Ape Holocaust to this dumb monkey peeking through binoculars the wrong way. It’s not that a little levity isn’t appreciated, but there are points where the relief undercuts the poignancy of certain scenes. And besides, the most successful joke in the movie is how Apes that turn to the human-side are called Donkeys. (Consider that the humans like calling other Apes “Kongs”.)
Besides that nitpick though, War for the Planet of the Apes is a must-see summer blockbuster. Like its characters, it’s an impressively intelligent picture with a lot on its mind and an incredible penchant for signs and symbols. The only reason I would give for skipping on this one is if you really can’t handle any more of this stuff because of…well…you know…how unfortunately relevant it all is.