– By J.W. Fox –
WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW
The rebooted Ape movies have been built on ideas rather than special effects, nostalgia, or star power. All three movies explore racial conflict, hubris, slavery, evolution and the conquest of reason by fear. The third film adds an interesting religious element not present in the first two. It makes Caesar a genuine, full-on ape messiah.
War for the Planet of the Apes takes place in the midst of the human-ape war. Remnants of the U.S. military are advancing deep into the forest in hopes of destroying the apes that attacked San Francisco in the previous movie. After a particularly bloody battle, Caesar sends an offer for a cease-fire to the human leader (Woody Harrelson), known only as the Colonel. The offer is rejected, of course. The Colonel and his forces still hold the apes responsible for the plague that nearly wiped out humanity. Even for those who know the truth, the apes are a threat to human civilization.
Caesar’s journey from caged pet, to tribal leader, ends with him becoming the deliverer of apes. The graying hair, sullen expression, and low voice gives the impression of an aging chieftain warn down by war and responsibility. When his wife and son are murdered, he abandons his leadership role to seek revenge on the Colonel. The inner conflict is between his responsibilities as leader and his individual desire for vengeance.
Let My People Go
Caesar’s rage is his temptation or last trial, the one that pulls him away from his destiny toward the ghost of Koba. The future of apes is his responsibility, one he cannot escape. His fall results in the enslavement of his people. After his failure, he retakes the mantle of leader and sacrifices himself to spare his people from suffering. There is a crucifixion scene and Caesar’s declaration of the Ape’s fundamental law: “apes not kill apes,” suggesting he is also the lawgiver of his people.
A slave race, a chosen leader, and a great escape parallel to the story of Moses. The Deliverer of Israel was also a reluctant leader but inevitably followed God’s commands to free his people from the Egyptians. Like the Egyptians, Woody Harrelson’s human civilization is more powerful and ruthless. The Colonel believes he is fighting a holy war against the apes giving a slight hint of a possible god-complex. His soldiers place the symbols for alpha and omega on their uniforms and flags. The symbols are tattooed onto their ape collaborators, who they call donkeys. All the symbolism reinforces the belief that humans are the rightful rulers of the planet, a justification for oppressing the intelligent ape race.
The movie ends with the apes finding a peaceful, fertile place to settle in the mountains. Meanwhile, the surviving human forces are swallowed up by an avalanche similar to Ramses and the Egyptian army being swallowed up by the Red Sea. Like Moses, Caesar dies of his wounds but sees his people reach the promised land before his end.
Slavery and War are Bad
Caesar is easily the most compelling character in the whole trilogy. Andy Serkis does a phenomenal job bringing the CGI ape to life. What is truly remarkable is you quickly see the apes as the protagonists, similar to the “other” people in Dances with Wolves and Avatar. The humans of the American military are oppressors, unworthy of their place atop the technological and evolutionary ladder. Their maltreatment and eventual enslavement is very similar to the subjugation of the indigenous tribes within the various European colonial empires.
The Colonel’s mountain base resembled a Southern plantation, complete with back-breaking physical labor, overseers with whips, and a master of the house watching from his balcony as his precious wall is built. The examination of racial inequality and strife has been a constant in the Apes movies since the original. War for the Planet of the Apes follows in the tradition in impressive fashion.
The three movies are also critical of our affinity for preemptive strikes. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Gary Oldman’s character seeks to strike the apes first rather than accept a peace. There is also the Machiavellian pursuit of resources. Their need for electricity from the dam was an obvious metaphor for our need for oil from the Middle East.
The Colonel continues the tradition of aggressive, militaristic human leaders. He rejects a cease fire and instead attempts to assassinate Caesar. His obsession with the mutating virus and the ape threat make for a classic maniacal officer similar to Colonel Kurtz or Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Kong: Skull Island.
One thing bothered me upon leaving the theater. The movie isn’t about the war between apes and men. There are guns, helicopters, and spears but this is not a war movie. The final battle takes place in the background, which was definitely a strange narrative choice. Instead of fighting in a battle, the apes are attempting to escape captivity while the battle rages behind them. If you are going to name your movie War for the Planet of the Apes, you should probably make the movie about the war.
The military aspect of the movie was not done particularly well either. The writers clearly have a limited understanding of modern warfare. In one scene the apes are riding horses behind a convoy of humvees, in full view of the human soldiers. The scene is meant to show Caesar following the humans to their camp but it is hard to believe the convoy would not notice him and turn to engage. The Colonel’s assassination mission made little sense as it was basically a suicide mission, with almost zero chance of success. How they were suppose to identify Caesar from the other apes is never explained.
In the final battle, the human forces from the north rush toward the Colonel’s base like a horde of medieval foot soldiers. The scene looked more like the battle for Helm’s Deep. Apache gunships inexplicably fly straight into SAM fire. The Colonel’s wall was obliterated almost immediately, another head-scratching detail. Exactly why did he expect it to hold up against Apache gunships and tanks? The humans are supposed to be American soldiers from before the plague, yet seem to fight as rank amateurs.
This movie is not about a war. Another title would have been more appropriate.
Classic Movie References
The movie also contains numerous homages to the great movies of the past. The writers, Matt Reeves and Mark Bromback, were inspired by numerous great movies during the writing of the script. If you watch closely you will see subtle references to Apocalypse Now, Bridge On the River Kwai, The Great Escape, Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and probably more. Most of the references are cleverly placed but viewers unfamiliar with these movies will miss most, if not all of them. Younger audiences in particular will probably not appreciate them.
I do not recall the original Ape movies doing anything similar. More importantly, a movie paying tribute to a bunch of classic movies does not make for a great theater experience. It is out of place within a post-apocalyptic action film.
There are references that do fit the franchise but were not necessary. The character names Caesar, Cornelius, and Nova are all straight from the original movies. Caesar’s nickname “Bright Eyes” is a reference to Zira’s nickname for Charlton Heston’s character in the original. Caesar and his key lieutenants come across a mute girl during their pursuit of the Colonel. Maurice decides to name her Nova, just like the woman Charlton Heston takes with him to the forbidden zone.
Unfortunately, Nova is irrelevant to the plot. Other than modestly assisting the apes in escaping imprisonment, she has no real impact. Nova could be removed from the movie entirely and nothing would be lost. The Simian Flu mutation was also necessary. The new strain renders humans mute, just like the humans of the original film. This also could have been removed from the film and it would not miss a beat.
In the end, the third installment is a worthy addition to the franchise. It is smart, exciting, and a visual marvel. The CGI makes the apes so real, you almost forget it is just a bunch of guys in leotards covered in electronic sensors. The movie earned $56 million in its first weekend matching the first reboot movie but falling short of the second film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Despite the misleading title and unnecessary homage to the classics, it’s depth separates it from nearly every other major sci-fi movie this year. I’d rank the two previous reboot installments ahead of it, but it is still worth seeing.
J. W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels under the pen name Jacob Foxx: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.