War for the Planet of the Apes
Matt Reeves (2017)
Well, I’m going out on a limb here and I’m going to claim that Matt Reeves’ final picture in the science-fiction reboot Planet of the Apes trilogy, War for the Planet of the Apes, is the best film of the year so far. How strange that seems to say: This is a franchise that sought to revisit the quirky, campy world envisioned in the original classic 1968 Charlton Heston film that spawned four progressively inferior sequels. Who would have thought that anything more could have been done with the idea? That original film, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (who two years later would win an Oscar for directing Patton), and co-written by the Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling (adapted from a novel by French author Pierre Boulle), seemed like a wild, silly concept to the original skeptical audiences, but proved stunning (that Statue of Liberty ending!) and profound by the time the film ended, raising serious questions about what it means to be human, and about the dangers of modern technology—specifically the threat of thermonuclear destruction then at the height of the Cold War.
The current trilogy takes the no-longer-so-campy concept of intelligent animals, animals closely related to humans, and asks not so much what it is to be human, but rather how much we have in common with the creatures with whom we share the planet. And, interpreting the apes as a microcosm of the natural world as a whole, one threat this final film in the trilogy warns of is the more currently relevant danger of abusing the natural world, and its creatures, and what forms Nature might take in responding to those human abuses.
But that’s just one of the film’s many takeaways. The story of War for the Planet of the Apes begins two years after the events of Reeves’ previous film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his tribe of apes, are just trying to live in peace in their woodland realm, removed from human beings. Humans, however, have been having their own problems: a deadly degenerative virus is affecting people, taking away their ability to speak and ultimately their ability to reason, so that as apes evolve mentally, humans devolve, becoming more animal-like. In what he sees as a war for survival of his species, a new human military leader, identified only as “the Colonel” (Woody Harrelson), attacks Caesar’s tribe, inflicting severe losses on them.
From advance scouts, the apes hear of a new land where they can be free from this kind of war, somewhere out of these woods and beyond the desert. But the night before they leave to begin their exodus, a sneak attack by the Colonel brings more grief to Caesar, and as the tribe begins its journey, Caesar goes off alone to take revenge on the Colonel. But he is joined by his closest friends and advisers, the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), the faithful chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary), and the gorilla Luca (Michael D. Adamthwaite). His desire for revenge ultimately comes in conflict with his duty to protect and lead his tribe when they are enslaved by the Colonel, forcing Caesar to make complex moral decisions. During his internal struggles he is visited by the taunting vision of Koba (Tony Kebbel), the renegade ape from Dawn whose hatred of humans brought about the first ape/man conflict. Is Caesar a better moral being than Koba, or is his quest no different after all?
Some have called the film an allegory. It isn’t, by a strict definition of the term, for an allegory is a narrative in which abstract concepts are represented as physical objects or characters. But it is certainly true that the film’s story recalls other familiar narratives and invites comparisons through biblical, literary or historical allusions. One of these, perhaps the most obvious, is the narrative of the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt under Moses. The apes flee war and slavery, led by their charismatic leader Caesar, the new Moses. There is no Sinai experience or handing down of a new Law, but there is a sort of “Red Sea miracle” late in the film, and the recreation or mirroring of those events does create a good deal of sympathy for the apes and for Caesar, just in case you were inclined to root for the humans. The “let my people go” inference all but forces us to think of the apes as those “people,” and to believe, like them, that all reasoning beings should be free.
Nor is it a coincidence that the Exodus experience, as evinced in old spirituals like “Go Down, Moses,” was used by slaves in the old South to parallel, even to represent in coded language, their own plight and drive toward freedom—for many Americans perhaps a stronger incentive to sympathize with the enslaved apes in the film.
The humanizing of the apes is also a reverse parallel to the tendency of nations—or at least of their governments—to de-humanize other peoples whom they have decided to categorize as enemies. Such dehumanization—categorizing certain groups as “less civilized” or “more barbaric” than we are, justifies our actions when we oppress, enslave or annihilate them. There is no doubt that dehumanization of Jews, categorized as “vermin” by Nazi propaganda, ultimately made the Holocaust possible. Thus it is not surprising that the apes in the movie are locked up in a camp that bears a striking resemblance to Dachau or Auschwitz—all that’s missing is the “Arbeit macht frei” sign on the gate. Contemporary political rhetoric that suggests Muslims or Mexicans/Mexican Americans are somehow inferior, less civilized, more barbaric, than we are allows the denial of their civil rights to be seen as acceptable. It’s no accident that the Colonel in this film is using slave labor to build a wall.
At the same time there are unmistakable allusions to Francis Ford Coppola’s classic film Apocalypse Now, Woody Harrelson with his shaved head—particularly in a scene where he interviews Caesar and the light and shadow play off his bald dome—recalling Marlon Brando’s obsessive Colonel Kurtz in Coppola’s film. Through Coppola’s Kurtz, Reeves manages also to allude to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Coppola’s source for his film, a novel set in the Congo Free State, where unparalleled atrocities were committed on the “barbaric” African population in the name of Civilization. Conrad’s is a novel all about dehumanization, and it is appropriate to remember that Conrad’s Kurtz’s last words written in his journal concerning the Africans are “Exterminate the brutes!” In this vein it is germane to mention the apes in Reeves’ film called “donkeys,” who serve in the human’s army and help the Colonel in his planned genocide of the apes, apparently believing that by cooperating they will be spared. Conrad depicts certain Africans who are “detribalized”—who have abandoned their traditional social, religious and ethical values in order to join he white man’s culture, but who, since they also are not fully accepted there, are essentially without any moral compass or personal dignity. The same can be said of the “donkeys” in this film.
None of these hifalutin ideas would come across if the film were not well made and well acted. It is the remarkable current state of computer generated imagery that makes this film visually stunning—far more realistic than Charlton Heston’s apes in the era of pre-Star Wars special effects were ever able to achieve (though it shouldn’t be forgotten that that original film won a special Academy Award for achievement in make-up). Filmmakers of Heston’s day would be awed by the achievement of this film.
Andy Serkis, who first introduced audiences to the astounding possibilities of motion-capture technology in his creation of Gollum for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is nothing short of amazing in creating Ceasar—there is not a single moment during this film that you do not believe wholeheartedly that Caesar is real. If some antiquated Academy rule dictates that Serkis cannot be nominated for a “Best Actor” Oscar, then they ought to make sure he gets some special award recognizing his achievement in this film, which is, without exaggeration, the creation of a whole new category of acting. As the big-hearted, empathetic Maurice, a character without the ability to speak and who communicates in ape sign-language, Karin Konoval creates a profoundly sympathetic character out of movement, gesture and facial expression, all of which she does through motion-capture.
Beyond the impressive effects and the thoughtful social commentary, Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback have created a script that is first and foremost about character and relationships. It is to the credit of the director and the actors that those characters are realized in an impressive new medium. And for those of you who still prefer the original film, Charlton Heston fans will be delighted to see two young characters—the young chimp Cornelius and the young, speechless human girl Nova—who seem to provide a link to the 1968 film—a closing of the loop as it were. But they’ve got to grow up first.
I’m giving this one four Shakespeares, folks. Seriously.