Were I still 20 years old, I admit War for the Planet of the Apes would have a good shot at becoming my favorite movie of the year. It uses special effects so impressive that we’ve mostly stopped even noticing them, has an intelligent non-human as its main character, and is relentlessly bleak throughout, offering its characters, at the very best, the chance to leave a depressing, rainy forest for a presumably less-depressing desert (an odd choice given that being near water is presumably better in a survivalist situation). It’s fascinating to me that Fox, a company whose cable news division will probably bring on the actual apocalypse, has spent the whole summer releasing movies about how humanity can and should go extinct, always at the hands of a now-superior species. Lest any Aryan Nation types get too excited that such is a metaphor for their beliefs, however, we should note that the downfall of us is invariably due to a lack of compassion and/or common sense.
Anyway, it has been a long time since I’ve seen 20, and the first half-hour or so of War frankly bores me. An initial firefight is compelling in that we don’t know who to root for in the apes versus humans conflict, but that ambiguity is very quickly dispelled as ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis, reliably great as usual) makes yet another offer of peace, only to have human leader “The Colonel” (Woody Harrelson) not just reject it, but commit the kind of unspeakable deed that has incited nearly every martial-arts revenge movie you can think of. Enraged and tired of bending over backwards to be the good guy, Caesar goes on a mission of personal revenge even as he sends most of his apes on a mission to move their home away from the Pacific Northwest and into the desert.
Every beat of this is predictable, which is a shame: the original Planet of the Apes movies, as dark as their endings were, always had both a fun sense of discovery and a healthy sense of social satire. There are arguably two great moments of discovery here, and one is entirely dependent upon your knowing the first films fairly well; the other is Steve Zahn’s “Bad Ape,” a new chimp who can talk as well as Caesar can, but is traumatized and a bit of a coward when it comes to conflict. Without veering into Jar Jar territory, he adds a note of realistic humanity that challenges the one-note vengeance theme.
War for the Planet of the Apes initially evokes a lot of things: it’s a war movie, it’s a western, it’s an action-star vehicle, it’s a prison flick…eventually, though, it coheres into something more clear: a full-on Ten Commandments allegory (complete with literal act of God) with Caesar as Moses. It is, perhaps, a very circuitous way to pay tribute to Charlton Heston, but beyond that, the symbolism is unclear. Cecil B. DeMille specifically intended the Heston version to be a Cold War commentary in addition to a Bible story; in a rarely seen introduction filmed at the time, he spelled out that he saw the Jewish struggle against Pharaoh as being akin to the forces of freedom opposing Communism. There’s little indication director Matt Reeves sees the structure as a metaphor for anything similar in the world today, unless the Colonel’s prison camp is supposed to be Gitmo, and he’s saying the terrorists should win.
And there’s little ambiguity here–only the pretense of same. The original Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, from which the entire new trilogy draws most of its inspiration, was decidedly on the fence about humanity, indicting us for slavery and racism while also suggesting that maybe killing everyone isn’t the best response to same. War stacks the deck by making it clear that every human we see onscreen, save for one mute little girl, is a BAD human, part of a fascistic militia that isn’t even obeying the orders of the military proper. It’s a cop-out that allows us to dismiss them as straight-up baddies so we can enjoy their inevitable downfall without reservation.
But what of Caesar? Does not his blind rage offer some moral dilemmas? Yes and no. There are a few key moments in which he must face tough choices vis-a-vis dealing with humans, but in almost every case, his hand is forced when another character takes preemptive action first. The tough choice is made for him, and his conscience need not weigh heavily upon it. As he did in Let Me In, Reeves has remade by over-simplifying.
None of which is to dismiss War as a thrilling action flick, which indeed it is. It is also a great antidote to summer heatwaves with its non-stop wintry vistas and icy waterboarding scenes almost guaranteed to make you feel colder. (I’m reminded of Mad Magazine’s old Julius Caesar parody: “Hail, Caesar!” “No, methinks it is snow.”) If ape-on-human action is all you crave, this War delivers, but by comparison to its ancestors, and even Fox’s own Logan this year, it comes up shallow, no matter how deeply it perceives itself.
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