“Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heaven, and let us make a name for ourselves, let us be dispersed over the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth” (Genesis 11: 4-9).
“And Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord. And he looked down towards Sodom and Gomorrah and towards all the land of the valley, and he looked and, behold, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace. So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley” (Genesis 19: 27-29).
These verses are here not just because I think the makers of War For the Planet Of The Apes would appreciate them, but also because they perfectly set up the atmosphere and morality explored in this last entry of the Planet of the Apes trilogy.
War for the Planet of the Apes begins where the second film left off. Caesar (the phenomenal Andy Serkis) is the leader of his band of enhanced apes. He is forced to fight a war that a crazy ape named Koba started before he died. Caesar tries to make peace with the humans he’s fighting against, led by a zealot Colonel (Woody Harrelson) but when his own family is murdered, he drops everything to carry out a revenge mission against the Colonel.
War FTPOTA is not only a visual feast, but uses its effects to serve its science fiction premise to the fullest. It does what science fiction is supposed to do: make us think about our world. This apocalyptic story about apes overtaking humans is simply a vehicle to ask bigger questions. What is the primary difference between humans and animals? Is it language? If so, what about people who can’t talk? If animals achieve human language, then what determines it? If there were a plague that infected your loved ones but put others at risk, what would you do? Is revenge ever justified? What makes a leader?
War FTPOTA asks big questions, and expresses itself through poignant imagery. It isn’t always subtle. There are strong Apocalypse Now parallels, to the point where some graffiti is shown that says “Ape-pocalypse Now.” It is the second film of the year to feature animals re-enacting a kind of holocaust (the first being Netflix’s Okja) and it loves religious imagery, too. Caesar is hung up on a cross and is pierced in his side. The Colonel, in explaining his backstory, says, “I sacrificed my only son to save humanity.”
It might not be subtle, but it’s interesting. War FTPOTA uses intertextuality to make this story bring in stories we already know to increase the emotional impact. It no longer seems as foreign, because we recognize the archetypes, just re-enacted with apes.
The film goes big with imagery, and it goes big in messages. War FTPOTA is political. All art is to some degree, because every creator has a worldview that impacts their work. But this film has a villain that is trying to build a border wall (I know the film was made before Trump became big, but still). It combines warfare and religious imagery, muses on how the ability to speak and use language defines us as human beings (consider the verses about the Tower of Babel above), and gives a compelling story about failed leadership. Caesar has been the leader of the apes for two movies now, and in this movie, he falls. Great leaders are ones that put aside their personal desires for the cause of the group. Here, Caesar lets himself get personal with the humans. When his vendetta becomes his focus, the entire group falls, and everyone suffers the consequences. While he is able to do the right thing in the end, he still dies.
With that storyline, it’s impossible not to see similarities to this year’s Logan, a film I loved. Both feature the patriarchs of a franchise showing wear and tear. They become father figures to young girls who don’t speak, fight military men to get across a border, take their charges to a safe Eden-esque place, and die. I don’t know quite what that pattern says about today’s culture, except that a maybe a lot of filmmakers are becoming parents and are trying to make blockbusters more prestigious, but again, I’m interested. I’m intrigued.
In the end though, if this movie proves anything, it is, say it with me:
Give! Andy! Serkis! An! Oscar!
Motion capture acting is real acting, and it’s about time the Academy at least acknowledges it. His performance as Caesar is emotional and intimate, yet stoic. The entire cast takes the project seriously, and it shows.
War for the Planet of the Apes exceeded all of my expectations. In the two weeks before seeing the film, I watched five war-themed films (Saving Private Ryan, Joyeux Noel, Their Finest, Hunt for Red October, and Dunkirk). I would easily count this new Apes film among those. War films should reveal something about humankind at large, and War FTPOTA does that and more.