By Travis Trombley
This thread, thankfully one of many of similar quality, illustrates the heart and intelligence of the film’s script and the exceptional technical skill of the filmmakers.
War for the Planet of the Apes knows exactly what it wants to be about, and that alone sets it apart from much of the summer blockbuster fare. Concluding the Apes prequel trilogy, Reeves’ War employs biblical and historical images to interrogate ideas like human nature, prejudice, leadership, and the notion of community. It asks - as have all the installments - what separates a sentient animal from something more wild? Or rather, what separates a moral creature from something lesser, and why being the former is preferable to the latter.
In short, it’s incredible - an impressive blend of spectacle, thoughtful imagery, historical awareness, subtle humor, and thematic grounding. A great story told by a masterful storytellers - directors, actors, and special effects artists included.
Dawn followed both sides of the conflict, the camera swapping perspectives from human to ape, showcasing on both the dangers prejudice and selfishness pose to a fragile peace, and also celebrating the small acts of trust and forgiveness that could make peace possible, had circumstances been different.
War offers no such sympathy for its human characters. The camera exclusively follows the apes this time around. Save for a mute child, the remaining fleshies here represent the worst of humanity. They are led by the extremist Colonel McCullough, who believes it his divinely ordained mission to eradicate the apes in order to save his race, even at the cost, he says, of his own humanity. But despite the humans’ appeals to religion, both verbally and through their symbology (the colonel’s military base is decorated in an American flag with the Alpha and Omega signs painted on it), the humans here nearly bereft of all but but violence and hatred - maybe brainwashed by the colonel during a time when people look to leaders for answers (we’ve seen the trend before), or just morally deafened by the fate of their race.
Mankind seems all but destined for a dehumanized, compassionless existence preceding its extinction, and the apes here take up the mantle - as Josh Larson puts it - of the image of God. They inherit not only the mantle of sentience, but of moral agency.
This swap is clear from the outset. The film opens on a small attack squad quietly ambling through the forest, filmed from a top-down perspective so that the movements of the black-clad characters seems reminiscent of the apes they seek to kill. The next shot takes us to ground level, staring directly at the back of their helmets, most decorated with messages of hate: “monkey killer,” “bedtime for Bonzo,” and “the only good ape is a dead ape.” The link: hate and prejudice turn us into animals.
The stronghold / prison camp evokes images of a concentration camp, with ill-fed prisoner-slaves forced into manual labor at gunpoint, but the soldier’s - especially the bald, aviator-wearing McCullough - also exude a skin-head vibe. The images stack nicely to charge the scenes with the idea of prejudice, bigger than any historical allegory, which the Colonel later puts to words in a backroom meeting with Caesar. He views the apes as an evolutionary threat to mankind, and as mankind is made in the image of God, it’s his holy duty to eliminate them...and any like them. That includes the humans who have fallen prey to a mutated strain of the Simian Flu that causes them to go mute and - he says - “savage.” We later learn that the Colonel was actually rejected by the human military for his ruthlessly lethal handling of the disease’s victims, including his own son, and the rest of the army is on their way to eliminate the rogue faction, regardless of whether or not the hated apes find themselves in the crossfire or not.
McCullough’s an ethnic purist; an unsettled extremist living out a messiah complex as a self-admitted moral monster. He views the world in primal “us or them” terms, a destructive foil against Caesar’s attempts to build and protect his community through peace, both external and internal.
And it’s community building, not violence, that ultimately liberates - and vindicates - Caesar and his apes. Following an early act of violent protest to the forced ape-labor, one strikingly reminiscent of Moses’ killing an Egyptian slave driver, Caesar learns that force cannot save his apes. In fact, it was only an act of submission on behalf of another ape - going back to work and encouraging the others to do so, too - that kept Caesar from taking a bullet to the head as punishment for the little uprising. Later, Caesar survives a cold night only because another “ape” was willing to sneak into the camp and bring him some food - the act a returned kindness from earlier in the film, emphasizing the importance - the power, if I may be so bold - of charity, according to the film. Ultimately, the apes escape only due to the diligent efforts and largely unwarranted acts of bravery from a few companions working from the outside and coordinating with those within. The message is a familiar one, but nonetheless compelling: apes together strong.
However, the apes aren’t immune to more ‘human’ shortcomings - the element of betrayal still retains the ability to shatter the ape community. We see this played out through the “donkeys” in the film, apes who defect to McCullough’s platoon as physical laborers in exchange for protection. Frightened into servitude, these apes provide the film a much-needed moral complexity. Their betrayal frees the WAR from painting in broad, ethnocentric strokes in which one’s genetics dictate one’s righteousness. Apes can be tempted - they sin, too. Alternatively, the girl Nova proves, albeit exclusively, that humans retain some capacity for good, too, though theirs is now relegated to a childish, innocent goodness.
Thematically, it’s also interesting that most of the “donkeys” are gorillas, the large brutes of the ape community, which could indicate a focus on physicality: as they possess great physical strength, they also seem moved by displays of physical power, which makes them more prone to fear of the Colonel’s military might. It’s an interesting commentary on perspectives of power and the values different people place on different forms of strength - especially those with which they personally identify.
The most significant contrast between the apes and the humans arrives as an almost too-easy conflict towards the end. When the opportunity to escape via tunnel finally arrives, the apes run into a problem: they can’t dig under the cage containing the ape children. After a brief debate, the apes resolve to rescue the children, leading to some of the film’s most humorous moments (ape children surreptitiously shimmying across wires while their captures stand oblivious below makes for a great shot, and an ape throwing it’s own feces as a distraction not only delivers us the joke we’ve been waiting for since the first film, but also a thoughtful flip on what’s considered a base stereotype). More importantly, it cements a critical distinction: whereas McCullough and his men mercilessly kill any who exhibit symptoms of the flu, the apes care for their young, even when doing so invites a liability.
After his family’s murder, the idealistic leader gets consumed by vendetta, which goes against his role as leader. As McCullough points out, Caesar’s priorities seem distorted if he thinks himself a worthy leader while intending to murder the colonel, as the humans would simply retaliate by killing the rest of the apes. During a few dream sequences, this rage of Caesar’s gets embodied by his old foe Koba, who reminds Caesar that he broke one of the only ape commandments, thus rendering him unworthy of his station.
He’s foiled by McCullough, who - despite his cruel extremism - remains entirely consistent, unafflicted by competing motivations like Caesar. He’s singularly focused on his desire to save mankind’s humanity. Their binary comes to a head in a refreshingly underwhelming confrontation, the conclusion to which solidifies McCullough’s internal consistency and emphasizes - through a healthy dose of ambiguity - Caesar’s ‘human nature.’ Suffice it to say, while Caesar is able to eventually ensure his people’s safety, his ‘sin’ of pursuing the vendetta, like Moses’ moment of pride, doesn’t go unpunished.
When the opposing human faction arrives, missiles launch and machine guns rattle, but unlike most blockbuster finales, every moment of drama privileges character and theme over spectacle. Given opportunities for redemption, both our friend with the crossbow and the primary “donkey” ultimately choose to side with their own species, which - sadly - is a condemnation of the former.
The film ends in a rush of moral damnation, personal redemption, and almost divine judgement. When one group of humans stands triumphant over another group, Caesar looks on in disgust as they celebrate the death and carnage, yet the revelry ends abruptly when a crack from the mountaintop above signals the start of an avalanche. While the apes escape by climbing up the trees, their personal arcs afforded by superior physical abilities, the human army gets wiped away in a fashion intentionally reminiscent of God’s flood in Genesis, his attempt to purge the planet of a wicked mankind.
As for the visuals, the film is beautiful, due in large part to the north-western forests, shores, and mountains in which it was filmed. But it also does much with its environment, coding themes into the environment like “Ape-Pocalypse Now” spay painted on a wall. However, this is all garnish atop cake that is the presentation of the apes, a mix of motion-capture CGI and traditional special effects that never once fail to seem realistic in both facial expressions and bodily movements, be they riding a horse or rolling out of the way of gunfire.
When it comes to fights, I have to say there’s nothing quite as engrossing as the long tracking shots and scaffolding fight in Dawn, but it still works. There’s some cool stealth scenes in darkened passages and an almost overly explosive third act in the courtyard of the prison camp. While I’m happy emphasis narrative, it's worth noting that none of the action scenes here seem on par with the big moments from previous installments.
All that said, there one distracting element of the film proved salient enough to take my wife out of the experience. She seems to take umbridge with the idea of the apes’ equine mounts. While it serves to emphasize the ape’s intelligence and inheritance of human capacities, the image of apes riding horses gets ridiculous when one horse carries a gorilla and another ape at the same time. I mean - poor horses. I’m feeling a spin-off series: Rise of the Planet of the Horses.
But that’s a quibble compared to everything else this film does so well. The summer of 2017 proved great for blockbusters overall. Spider-Man: Homecoming proved that after five films across two versions of the character, the web-head still has stories to tell. Logan provided a serious look at a dying superhero. Wonder Woman gave us powerful female lead in a fantastic period piece. Transformers....well, Transformers gave us a chance to see Anthony Hopkins again, so that was cool. But despite all these, War for the Planet of the Apes takes the cake for my favorite blockbuster of 2017.