On escape and survival, promised lands, disenchanted optimism, and the unvarying morality of Apes
War for the Planet of the Apes 20th Century Fox
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenplay: Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves, based on characters created by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite and Gabriel Chavarria
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 20 minutes / 2.35:1
July 14, 2017
(out of four)
Through three films, the conscience of the renewed Planet of the Apes series has been on a straight line. Neither its reasoning nor its attitude nor its judgment has shifted. Like the immutable laws of nature these human and ape characters have to contend with, the franchise's sense of morality has remained steady. It's the sides that have changed, and the circumstances those sides have been given ... or created for themselves. The pivots in point-of-view from one film to the next have been the organic result.
In 2011's Rise, our perspective was primarily human - featuring one hyper-intelligent test-subject ape, and eventually a few of his friends. Three years later, once the humans' own actions had set everything in motion - and made their creations into involuntary outlaws - Dawn split its viewpoint in half, tilted somewhat toward the apes but still presenting two distinct existential perspectives. Three more years have passed and, as set up by the climactic events of the previous film, War has come, and the film is ensconced entirely with the apes - including that same hyper-intelligent ape, once a novelty and now a reluctant leader and guardian in a conflict he never wanted. Positioning Caesar (Andy Serkis) as the linchpin across the three films is central to this shifting perspective. You can read the entire trilogy as his tragedy - a long con played against him, transforming him from compassionate optimist to jaded, battered avenger. He was the one raised by a (loving) human family in the first place, and fought for mercy toward them even after the chemically induced awakening of his species. He was the one calling for restraint even as tensions boiled over between one community and the other. But by early in the events of the third installment, the humans have killed his family and begun rounding apes into camps, back behind the cages they so triumphantly escaped near Rise's end. It may have taken several years, three movies and a whole lot of goodwill and patience, but his faith in humanity has finally been irreversibly betrayed.
With his guidance over the last two entries, writer/director Matt Reeves has brought the franchise into shape - aesthetically and ideologically - in a way very similar to what Paul Greengrass did for the Bourne series (after Doug Liman helmed Identity), or even to Mimi Leder's impact on The Leftovers in its second and third seasons. War for the Planet of the Apes is a thrilling capstone to the story Rupert Wyatt began in 2011; Reeves crafts a survival epic with a level of confidence and cohesion rarely seen in the blockbuster market. Distinctly of a piece with Dawn - which ended with an official declaration of war - War is both aftermath and prologue, its conflict having waged for years and been narrowed primarily to a clash between two devoted leaders and the armies that loyally follow them. Both Caesar and Woody Harrelson's The Colonel are mythological whispers to their opposing forces - the feared and the unseen, as threatening for the mystery that surrounds them as for their tactical command.
The war is not between ideologies or even - at least not exactly - territory, but between perceived struggles for survival. Both fear the other is going to wipe them out. Fundamentally, both are defensive positions, except the humans have turned their defensiveness into a protracted offensive, responding to the civilization they created with authoritarian militance. Dawn's antagonist was the ape Koba, who was a villain precisely because of his advocacy for genocide, in other words the exact thing the humans are trying to accomplish against the apes. His memory still haunts Caesar, as he tries to keep a handle on his own morality against oppressors that are making that task more and more arduous.
The divergent paths of the humans' self-defeating choices - dating back to their cavalier acceleration of the lucrative new drug that, rather than filling their corporate coffers, opened the floodgates for a genuine rival for global dominance - and the apes' evolution is the crux of the war, but it's the apes who, for the most part, have simply desired - and repeatedly asked - to be left alone. The war came to them. Once they had their basic freedom (at the end of Rise), they simply wanted an autonomous future. It was the humans who couldn't leave well enough alone. Then again, with that future always in question, and every peace tenuous, perhaps confrontation was inevitable, and coexistence impossible, regardless of the humans' collective state of mind.
After the sweaty Western milieu that Dawn occupied, the latest film shifts from sunny to snowy - its mountainy winter both an elegant reminder of the passage of time since the last movie and an apropos setting for the increasing bleakness that has enveloped the war as it enters its twilight. The fragile balance between truce and conflict that characterized the previous film is a distant memory, replaced by what The Colonel himself describes as a Holy War. The apes don't seem particularly interested in fighting it. Their goal is to reach the promised land that has been discovered far from human civilization, with Caesar as their Moses. But before their journey can begin, they're rounded up, imprisoned, and forced to spend their waking hours building a mysterious fortress, without the benefit of food or water. Caesar meant to make his way to this military stronghold anyway - but only with vengeance in mind for the murder of his wife and son at The Colonel's hand. His entire people being imprisoned has temporarily changed his priorities, but not his anger.
At this point, we take for granted Serkis' groundbreaking work in motion-capture performance, so it still deserves reiteration. With his role of Caesar, he's essentially been granted the entire life arc of a character - from early childhood to grizzled adulthood, his visage in War flecked with grey hairs - and we've seen that character, and Serkis' performances, evolve from beginnings to endings, from one movie to the next. The events over the course of the series have, particularly by the time 20 minutes in War have passed, hardened him almost beyond recognition. The reserves of his strength have nearly been exhausted. He is, once the film's core narrative begins in earnest, a stone-faced emblem of rage, regret and determination. He's Charles Bronson. The transition from the remarkable emotional expressiveness of earlier incarnations of the character to this version, who actively defies overt emotional expression, strikes a painful chord.
In a film whose cast tilts heavily toward the ape population - with very few human characters even getting names (aside from the ones scratched onto their combat helmets), let alone registering as anything but an enemy mob - Serkis' work is nicely complemented by Karin Konoval as the gentle, sage-like Maurice, and a hilarious Steve Zahn as the self-proclaimed Bad Ape, an eccentric survivor of the mass killings that claimed his former zoomates. (It is as Steve Zahnish a character as you could possibly imagine.) And the one anachronism of this group of apes is a young girl (Amiah Miller) they discover along the way - a girl whose bright, haunted eyes you might expect to see on a National Geographic cover, and which urgently express what her voice cannot. She's lost her ability to speak; only the occasional scratchy croak leaks out. This, we discover, is a new but not-uncommon occurrence - one that has not escaped the wrath of The Colonel, who has left a trail of bodies of the mute buried in shallow graves. This devolution to a more primitive state of communication is, he informs us, the result of a mutated form of the Simian Flu virus that wiped out much of the world's population in the first place.
Frankly, it would have been more haunting had the film left the reasons unexplained, or better yet insinuated that there was no explanation at all. Hysterical muteness. Regardless, it's an especially interesting contrast given the incremental way the film series continues to show the apes' own forms of communication evolving. In Rise, the vocalization of a single syllable was an unnerving shock. By Dawn, some of the apes could speak, but largely in bits and pieces, broken English, with a few key characters speaking in more complex sentences. In War, it's a fascinating composite. Some speak in sophisticated language, others still prefer sign language, others are still limited to grunts and other verbal and body-language cues. This exemplifies how the world itself - which they never intended to create but which nonetheless belongs, at least in part, to them - is still a work in progress. There is a war to be won, or lost, but either way, it will only lead to another beginning.
The film gracefully volleys between winter Western and war epic, espionage thriller and prison-escape drama. Reeves' approach is mostly serious in tone - treating the apes' fight for survival with the earnestness of a more traditional drama - but there's real cleverness in his staging and majesty in his images. This is a war worth fighting, and he delivers a vibrant and memorable one, its triumphs muted, its ideals bloodied, its heroes broken.