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Non-Review Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

The most evocative image in War for the Planet of the Apes is the United States flag, with an alpha and an omega scrawled across it.

This thematic juxtaposition is repeated throughout the film. The antagonistic human forces at the heart of War for the Planet of the Apes use the symbols as a logo. When they recruit apes into their ranks, they brand them with the symbol. When the audience is invited into their camp around half-way through the film, an oil tanker is marked the graffiti “the end and the beginning.” In some ways, this is a reflection on War for the Planet of the Apes as the final movie in a prequel trilogy, but it is also a much stronger thematic statement.

Cool customer.

At the heart of War for the Planet of the Apes is the idea that the apocalypse is not scary because it represents the end of something, but that the collapse of civilisation is so unnerving because it represents a clear slip backwards. The apocalypse threatens mankind with the idea that people are nothing more than animals, no better than their ancestors when push comes to shove. The apocalypse suggests that everything that has been accomplished can be lost in an instant. In the end, people retreat back to what they truly were, and it is horrifying.

War for the Planet of the Apes is not so much a movie about the collapse of a civilisation as a grim argument that the very idea of civilisation is transient and illusory.

Take a bow.

In many ways, this is the culmination of a theme that has been building since Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The trilogy’s central recurring characters are all apes, with the human characters essentially swapped out with each individual film in the series. It is a very clever and effective way of building empathy, of inviting the audience the view this story from the perspective of its permanent non-human characters.

The trilogy has explored the growth and development of this primitive ape culture, from the nascent rebellion of Rise of the Planet of the Apes to the political schism of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes through to the ambitious exodus of War for the Planet of the Apes. Most obviously, the apes have grown to talk with one another, their communication and their characters growing more developed with each installment in the series.

The hole in things.

However, this rise of the apes is juxtaposed with the decline of man. The trilogy forms a series of snapshots charting the moral, social and political decay of human civilisation against the backdrop of this animal revolution. As the apes become more developed and more sophisticated, mankind becomes more backwards and more primitive. As the apes become more human, the humans become more beastly. The apes escaped from captivity, while the humans seek refuge in what is repeatedly described as “the human zoo.” It’s a very effective dramatic arc.

This decline is presented in a number of different ways. Most literally, War for the Planet of the Apes returns to the notion of the simian flu pandemic in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, suggesting that the virus has taken a new form. It is no longer lethal, instead becoming degenerative. The disease appears to affect the higher brain functions of those afflicted, rendering them incapable of communication. When Colonel McCullough describes this evolutionary leap, he even uses words like “regressed” and “primitive” to describe those infected.

A frosty reception.

However, mankind’s regression is not purely biological in nature. War for the Planet of the Apes suggests that this apocalyptic United States has regressed back to its earlier and uncivilised state. Matt Reeves suggests as much in how he chooses to frame the opening hour of the movie. Although its title implies that War for the Planet of the Apes will be a war movie, its first half is something more intimate and more reflective. In its first sixty minutes, War for the Planet of the Apes is a western.

This choice is more aesthetic than literal. Caesar spends most of the first half of the movie on horseback, leading his posse on a tragic and doomed mission. His troops scout of the enemy by looking for signs of camp fires. At one point, he rides into an old settlement, complete with a wooden sign hanging over the boundary, swaying gently in a light breeze. This ride into town inevitably leads to a quick-draw showdown.

Caesar the day.

This early adventure finds Caesar pushing west, following the path of Manifest Destiny. War for the Planet of the Apes suggests that the history of the American continent is playing itself out again, the savagery and the violence against a lawless backdrop. Tellingly, the two unstoppable forces at the heart of War for the Planet of the Apes meet in California. There is a sense that both Caesar and Colonel McCullough have literally run out of west. The end and the beginning overlap, where the push westward must give way before the sea.

However, these genre trappings lead nicely into the second half of the movie, in which it is revealed that Colonel McCullough has embraced the original sin of the United States. Caesar discovers that McCullough has reinstituted slavery, with War for the Planet of the Apes making a point to couch that horror in the most patriotic of trappings. The Colonel stands watch over his workforce as the stars and stripes hang behind him, the soldiers drag their slaves out to work as The Star-Spangled Banner plays over the speaker system.

It’s Col. or be Col.

The humans make a point to denigrate the ascendant apes, treating their very existence as an affront. Even apes who collaborate with mankind, who perpetuate the system of oppression and abuse, are still denied any personality or agency. The humans make a point to force these creatures lower down the evolutionary chain, to make them sub-ape. “You let them call you donkey,” Caesar reflects to one such collaborator, no shortage of contempt in his voice. This label is just another way of denying personhood.

To be fair, this transition from western to slavery epic is not unprecedented. A lot of modern westerns, particularly Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, make that thematic connection between the core American myth and the horrors upon which the nation was built. War for the Planet of the Apes is a powerful apocalyptic thriller because it suggests that the true horror of the collapse of civilisation is not an unknowable future, it is a resurrected past.

Not-so-Pale Rider.

Naturally, War for the Planet of the Apes is very timely. There are any number of obvious parallels to be made with contemporary politics, from the movie’s fixation on boundaries and borders in a chaotic and disorganised world through to the Colonel’s monomaniacal fixation on a wall that will be built by the kind of people that he plans to victimise. These observations are obvious, but the is no less effective for that contemporary resonance.

After all, Colonel McCollough is presented as the very embodiment of a certain strain of political and social thought that has had a horrific impact upon contemporary politics. McCollough is terrified of a future in which people like him will be outnumbered by those they deem inferior, where their perceived place in the natural order will be disturbed. McCollough is an embodiment of a certain paranoid strain of nationalist sentiment, reflected in two key choices: the decision to make McCollough a literal skinhead and the crucifix hanging prominently in his office.

Gun to my head, I’m not sure if it’s better than Dawn.

However, even beyond its powerful political themes, War for the Planet of the Apes is a remarkable piece of work. It is tempting to take the franchise’s technical accomplishments for granted in this day and age, but Caesar and his fellow apes are a remarkable achievement from a special effects perspective. “You are impressive,” the Colonel repeatedly praises Caesar. Given his difficulty acknowledging Caesar’s personhood, he might be talking about the computer rendering. “My god, look at the eyes. Almost human.” They certainly are.

However, Matt Reeves’ true genius lies in the way that he uses this modern technology to tell a very classical story. The thematic idea of regression that plays across the film is reinforced by Reeves’ use of very old-fashioned cinematic storytelling. Reeves structures War of the Planet of the Apes as something of a narrative throwback, a story that is very consciously and very clearly designed to evoke classic Hollywood cinema.

Good ape?

This is most obvious in the initial set-up, which is structured as both a western and a conventional tragedy. Caesar makes a number of decisions in the first act with the best of intentions, only for those decisions to cost him dearly. More than that, his central character arc is skillfully foreshadowed through exposition about the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The story of Caesar is set up as an elaborate tragedy, with the characters discussing that tragedy by proxy before the film allows it to unfold in great detail. It is classic storytelling.

However, Reeves is heavily influenced by all sorts of old-school Hollywood epics, the film’s classic feel enhanced by his decision to shoot on a long lens. The first half is very much a western, but then the movie quickly gives way to classic slavery or prison stories. War for the Planet of the Apes takes cues from films like Bridge on the River Kwai or Spartacus or The Great Escape. Towards the end of the movie, these visual and stylistic influences slip gradually towards classic biblical epics like Ben Hur or The Robe or The Ten Commandments.

Border patrol.

This is a clever choice on a number of levels. Most obviously, it fits with the theme of regression running through the film. However, it also provides War for the Planet of the Apes with a prestigious quality that is rare in most contemporary blockbusters. Referencing these fifties and early sixties films also feels like a sly nod to the movies status as a prequel to Planet of the Apes. Going even further in that direction, it feels appropriate that the final shift in the movie’s aesthetic takes it towards the kind of movie in which Charlton Heston might have appeared.

None of these references are ironic or coy. None of these references draw attention to themselves or wink at the audience. Instead, they exist to provide a framework through which this story might be told, a way of both understanding and appreciating Reeves’ accomplishment. Ironically for a movie where so many characters are computer-generated, these references help to provide the story with a sense of weight. War for the Planet of the Apes is a very modern movie in terms of theme and technical elements, but a very classic movie in terms of style. It is a reassuring blend.

No need to be Kurtz.

(Interestingly, Reeves’ most explicit and overt visual references are to seventies and eighties films rather than to those older movies. At one point, characters pass graffiti reading “Ape-pocalypse Now”, which helps cement the connections between Colonel McCollough and Colonel Kurtz while shouting out to one of the most iconic war movies ever made. At another point, while passing through Colorado, the characters visit a hotel that bears an uncanny resemblance to the Overlook, referencing another genre film that explored American history.)

In some ways, the trilogy of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes feel like spiritual companions to the work of Christopher Nolan on Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy captured the spirit of the first decade of the twenty-first century on celluloid; of the War on Terror and the culture of fear, of the surveillance state and growing class resentment. The Apes trilogy hints at the spirit of its own turbulent decade, or racial anxiety and cultural tension.

No time for no monkey business.

What is most striking about the Apes films is their cynicism. Repeatedly, the movie suggests that it is impossible for those in power to ever graceful share that power with others, that compassion will always be met with aggression, that forgiveness will be mistaken for weakness. Repeatedly over the course of War for the Planet of the Apes, Caesar is reminded of a gesture of good will that he made towards humanity. “I showed your people mercy,” Caesar tells McCollough. War for the Planet of the Apes unequivocally suggests that this is a mistake.

War for the Planet of the Apes is fundamentally a story about humanity struggling with nature in all of its forms. People wrestle with their own nature, with the natural world ascendant, and even with the environment itself. Repeatedly, War for the Planet of the Apes suggests that mankind is destined to lose those struggles, to find that all that they have built amounts to nothing in the face of who their truly are, what they have wrought, and even the world around them.

Snow making up for this.

To be fair, there are moments at which War for the Planet of the Apes seems to go a little bit too far. In particular, the film’s desire to tie into the original Planet of the Apes creates some underdeveloped tension when it comes to the plague afflicting humanity. With mankind losing their higher brain functions, War for the Planet of the Apes seems to be setting up the idea that the slavery seen in Planet of the Apes could be treated as compassionate or sympathetic. It is an issue that only exists in the context of the larger franchise, but it is still there to an extent.

Even allowing for this problem, War for the Planet of the Apes is still a testament to cinema’s ability to generate empathy for that which is alien to the viewer. There is perhaps a kernel of optimism buried in beneath its cynical exterior. The apes are truly the protagonists of the trilogy, and the films invite the audience to engage with these motion-captured computer-generated creations. If the audience can feel this measure of compassion and engagement for characters like Caesar, maybe there is hope for empathy out in the wider world.

Captive audience.

Still, this invitation to audience to empathise with Caesar is juxtaposed with a more pessimistic attitude towards the flesh-and-blood characters in the film. The most striking aspect of War for the Planet of the Apes is how purely it commits to that cynicism about humanity. War for the Planet of the Apes looks at the inevitable collapse of mankind and seems to shrug, “… would the end of all human life as we know it really be that bad a thing?” That is a breathtakingly bold stance for a big summer blockbuster.

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3 Responses

  1. The parallels with modern politics are inevitable indeed.

  2. “That is a breathtakingly bold stance for a big summer blockbuster.”

    To be honest I’d disagree. It very much seems like playing to the gallery of an intended audience with the ‘bad’ humans clearly representing one side of the political spectrum.

    Repeatedly onscreen during this franchise the humans we see being actively malevolent or dangerously ignorant are consistently depicted as conservatives: military men like Dreyfus or businessmen like Steven Jacobs or John Landon. Dodge Landon is practically coded as a redneck!

  3. “War for the Planet of the Apes seems to be setting up the idea that the slavery seen in Planet of the Apes could be treated as compassionate or sympathetic.”

    I don’t think the film is doing that so much as setting up what we saw in “Battle for Planet of the Apes” (prequel to the original 1968 film), in which the humans were treated relatively compassionately under ape rule. The 1968 film depicts a much later point in the timeline.

    Other than that, I really enjoyed your review and loved the movie. I agree that this is a rare blockbuster that engages with complex social themes.

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