I wasn’t prepared.
As predictable War for the Planet of the Apes was going to be in terms of conclusion, I still wasn’t emotionally prepared.
War for the Planet of the Apes is not only a poignant film but also the most satisfying conclusion to a trilogy in a long time.
“All of human history has led to this moment. The irony is we created you. And nature has been punishing us ever since. This is our last stand. And if we lose… it will be a Planet of Apes.” – The Colonel
War for the Planet of the Apes is a bit of a misleading title. It’s a film that’s very little on action but hard on the emotion. However the stance is not supposed to be devious.
The familiar war outlook is the “guns blazing” approach – two sides battling each other until one surrenders. However, that approach is never done with satisfaction. The film becomes a bloated, convoluted exercise and when the battle finally arrives, it’s like watching a repetitive car crash. There’s only so much destruction a viewer can take before recognising the soulessness of the battle. It doesn’t add anything new leaving a disappointing taste in your mouth, a failed realisation of films not living up to its promising potential in concluding its final piece. Two films that spring to mind which sadly fall victim of that is X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men: Apocalypse.
So the honest question is, how did War for the Planet of the Apes escape that? Why is it so enjoyable that all the positive words in a thesaurus are not enough to summarise it? It’s very simple. As they’ve always done (a goal that was set out in 2011) they took the concept seriously. They treated it with respect, not trying to shoehorn or set up a spinoff adventure. What War for the Planet of the Apes accomplishes is that investigative journey in finding the heart of war. It results in a thought-provoking, political and deeply concise film that speaks volumes about the nature of war. It uses familiar war films such as Apocalypse Now (or Ape-pocalypse Now as written in the film) and The Great Escape to reinforce those concepts. To have that exploration examined in a Planet of the Apes film feels like a treasure to behold. Because once you put the film into context, War for the Planet of the Apes is not about apes taking over the planet and replacing humanity in the process. War for the Planet of the Apes is the downfall of humanity.
The overall evolution of the trilogy makes total sense. In Rise, humanity played God. While the serum had altruistic intentions (the cure for Alzheimer’s) it simultaneously created the virus known as ‘The Simian Flu’. It gave apes increased cognitive intelligence but infected the worldwide human population. In Dawn, it was the shattering co-existence between apes and the human race. Koba (Toby Kebbell) may have started the war but humanity lit the fuse and followed through, changing the dynamic from a local incident to an all out battle. War essentially becomes a last stand for humanity in a self-destructive battle from extinction.
The apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) have been bystanders, sucked into the middle of each transition trying to survive. Therefore the heart of war is not just an exercise to showcase a physical battle between two opposing sides. It’s a personal journey full of pain and grief with war becoming a reactionary method in expressing it.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a psychological symmetry of moments and decisions. The violence results in a mirrored image of tit for tat instances and War cleverly asks if there’s a difference in the escalating madness.
The film opens up with an attack on an ape outpost. It’s another moment of bloodshed between the two sides which Caesar ultimately recognises. The few human survivors are set free as a gesture of good faith. It plays into Caesar’s consciousness that even in the darkest of moments, he still clings onto hope – hope that peace can be eventually realised. Apes are not savages, a mindset he optimistically wants to change. But that hopeful peace is fundamentally destroyed when the human army infiltrate Caesar’s home and The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) murders his family. The course of the film then deviates into a personal revenge mission. When we learn about The Colonel’s background, he too lost his family be it at the result of his own hand. When his son succumbs to a new violent and mutated strain of the Simian Flu, turning humans into a primitive, devolved state, his conscience and mission becomes clear. The emotional decisions drive the film, both characters abandoning their own humanity and laws (Caesar – the apes together strong motto. The Colonel – rebelling and murdering his superiors) for what they believe is a higher purpose.
It’s not without conflicting contradiction. Caesar who is hell-bent on revenge takes surrogate custody of a young girl called Nova (Amiah Miller) after murdering her father. It’s the conflict between the main mission and not abandoning the girl who’s now without her parent in the same way Caesar’s only remaining son Cornelius (Devyn Dalton) is without his father. While Caesar wrestles with his conscience, characters like Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) respond to the child as if they were taking care of their own in the most heartfelt of manners. There are other examples of this symmetry throughout – The Colonel and Caesar facing off talking about mercy. Caesar asked for mercy when he returned The Colonel’s soldiers alive, which he ignores – it’s kill or be killed to protect humanity. When The Colonel eventually succumbs to the virus, he gestures to Caesar to show him the exact same mercy which Caesar refuses. Another good example reflects the sacrifices of war. The Colonel is happy to kill even his own to stop the infection or anyone questioning his authority. Caesar kills Winter (Aleks Paunovic) for betraying the group which led to the human army discovering Caesar’s home and murdering his family. While both characters respond differently to murder – The Colonel rationalizing death as necessary in comparison to Caesar who’s haunted by Koba, fearing he’s turning into him, the symmetry puts War for the Planet of the Apes in a balanced context that as a viewer was completely unexpected.
“This is my fight. I may not make it back. Make sure my son knows who his father was.” – Caesar
War for the Planet of the Apes could have rested on its laurels but it decides to push even further into its own ideology.
There’s a translatable beauty that comes out of the film, taking small moments to slow down and reflect. Michael Giacchino’s score is magical, musically one of the best scores he’s done. The haunting cinematography showcasing the bleakness with a colourful poetry of a snow-covered land and pink blossom trees. The character of Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) breaking moments of tension with well placed and not too distracting humour. In some ways, as humanity grinds towards a breaking point, the apes have recognizably become more human than human.
This is summed up in Caesar with its religious and historical references. Caesar is more than just a leader, subsequently echoing the story of Moses. Just like in the book of Exodus, the apes are enslaved, forced to work without food or water to build a wall (where have I heard that phrase before…) for The Colonel. Caesar realising his mistake in abandoning his group for a selfish yet understandable reasons sets in motion for freedom for the apes. The nods to slavery and persecution goes deeper. We witness scenes of slave apes aka Donkeys, employed to be servants to The Colonel’s militarised army which painfully evokes memories of the Uncle Tom culture during the American period of slavery. This essence is brought to life through the character of Red Donkey (Ty Olsson) who is never blind in witnessing the atrocities done to apes but is more concerned with saving himself. Being labelled a “donkey” is the only way he can survive despite Caesar trying to convince him that he’s on the wrong side. The tasks he performs are humiliating and demeaning, going as far as whipping his own ape kind, once again evoking memories of slavery. Black men whipped or forced to whip each other to showcase who had power and authority but act as a preventive measure to quell uprising, rebellion and escape.
The fact that The Colonel refers to the battle as a “holy war” is another indication at the perverse look at religion by his radicalized army. The soldier’s tattoo of the Omega sign on their necks is not a coincidence, a symbolic reaffirmation of what the soldiers stand for. In eschatology it’s commonly referred as the “end of the world” or “end time” in depicting the final events of human history. The apes on the x-style cross are a throwback memory to the original film with the scarecrows in the forbidden zone but also a symbol of torture and crucifixion.
The avalanche at the end may feel like a complete random moment but if we stick to its religious and historical themes, then the avalanche serves as a flood in the same way the virus is a plague. The flood wipes out the last of humanity just like in the story of Noah’s Ark, a Genesis symbolism to restart the world again.
There’s a bittersweet satisfaction in watching Caesar die and trust me that’s not meant to sound sadistic! Caesar as a character represents a perfect bookend to a wonderful trilogy, a first hand witness on the transition of humanity from the beginning, middle and end. Because of his self-realisation that he was turning into Koba, his death becomes a symbolic end of the love/hate relationship with humanity which he doesn’t have to constantly endure. It signifies the end of one journey and the beginning of the next after seeing his people reach the promise land, completing that Moses ideology. They can start afresh and new in hope of a better world.
It’s easy to ask why did Caesar keep his injury hidden as a small nitpick to the story. But honestly, the journey to the new land was long and with his group so devoted and inspired by him, any hold-up would be delaying the inevitable. It might not be a satisfying answer but it goes to show how much Caesar cares. In a world where humanity is abandoned, even accused of being too emotional by The Colonel, Caesar’s willingness to ensure the safety of his group should be applauded. There were no dry eyes in my screening.
So how does the story continue? As the camera pans towards the sky, it points to the stars, a sci-fi wink and nod to the original Planet of the Apes film.
Who would have thought a character like Caesar could carry so much emotional weight and mean so much? That’s a testament to Andy Serkis and his brilliant acting and motion capture work. He’s outdone himself, arguably embodying a character more popular than Gollum from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It might be an incredible longshot but to reward him with an Oscar nomination would be the best because it’s richly deserved.
When I think about it more, War for the Planet of the Apes is probably my favourite out of the trilogy. Each film has been a steady growth in the evolving apes and War is the rewarding pay-off that justifies its underrated existence. For a film that deeply conveys the nature of war, showcasing both sides of the equation and still retain its heart feels like a rarity. That’s a huge credit to director Matt Reeves (the new Batman film is in safe hands) and Andy Serkis.
War for the Planet of the Apes is deserving of my highest recommendation and certainly one of the best films of 2017.