Now in its third and possibly final film, the 21st century Planet of the Apes series has shuttled audiences from the thickets of armed revolt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) to the middle passage of Greek Tragedy (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). With War for the Planet of the Apes, we’ve now descended into an even more classical and essentially mythological register. While Shakespeare was the obvious focal point in Dawn, director Matt Reeves and co-writer Marck Bomback double-down on the Biblical aspirations of the original series with this trilogy-conclusion, rendering War an heir apparent to the Cecil B. Demille Bible epics of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
Throughout the early portions of War for the Planet of the Apes, protagonist Caesar (Andy Serkis) leaves his apes to mount a personal mission, but the rest of his colony begins an arduous trek through a desert, a setting and adventure which lays bare the Biblical aspirations and allegorical, metaphysical meditations at stake here. However, while this promises an arid climate, most of War shuttles us with Caesar into the frigid mountains of the Pacific Northwest, where cinematographer Michael Seresin can bombard Caesar and his close friends with a white, frosty holocaust, the tundra of the soul. Caesar’s mission is to hunt and kill the villainous enigma known as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), whose abstraction of a name also reminds us that War is, at heart, a mythological allegory. The Colonel, obsessed with killing all of ape-kind, led a midnight raid on Caesar’s home from which not all emerged unscathed, and Caesar and his closest advisors, including sensitive and world-weary orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary), are on the proverbial war-path.
A war-path which is more plaintive than mongering. War is undeniably a violent film, but it is a brutality of the mind, a weathering and wearying of the heart, a crippling of the being and Caesar’s sense of self. Mortality on the mind and beset by an uncertainty about whether he can overcome his desire for revenge against the Colonel, Caesar’s face is even more tortured than in Dawn. His dearly departed once-advisor Koba, who led a revolt against Caesar in Dawn, now haunts him in even more festering, interiorized ways. Corporeal death has not stalled this phantom, and Koba’s more abstract placement in War’s story as a nightmare figure for Caesar only drives home the fractured-self connotations of the entire series. Koba, after all, was a bodily manifestation of Caesar’s inner hatred in Dawn. While Caesar notionally exorcised those demons by killing Koba, he has only liquefied them, returned them to himself, giving Caesar no corporeal body to place his negatives upon other than his own.
Caesar is not only mortally fearful for his soul but for his community, and he is primarily, although only subliminally, focused on how he will be remembered, which makes the Colonel another negative mirror-image, a fellow creature prone to thinking, considering, and reading his opponents with his eyes before sharing his own thoughts. While the Colonel wishes to be seen as an iron-fist and calculates his movements to achieve this end, Caesar has tough compassion on the mind. The film featuring these two is, essentially, a battle of legends, or rather, men and apes who are aware that they may become legends in the future. Myth for these leaders of men (whether human or ape) is a final refuge, a final way of completing themselves beyond death. Perhaps unfortunately, this makes War less notable for being a radical film than for radically summoning the spirit of classical drama within the confines of a summer blockbuster. In other words, its moral fixations are traditional, if not conservative in the American political sense of the word. War is hardly the first film to explore men who want to be remembered. Unsurprisingly, then, the franchise remains essentially negligent to the role of women in this society. Apes reinstitute the mistakes of their former masters, revolution or not.
Limits aside, War for the Planet of the Apes is a blockbuster achievement of the finest order. It isn’t really an insurgent or a bastion of dissent in the blockbuster world, but it is a shoring-up and sharpening of the aesthetic sobriety many increasingly mature blockbusters have stumbled trying to perfect over the past ten years. War boasts a fierce felt force and apocalyptic emotion that nourishes a whole fleet of well-characterized apes. Of course Andy Serkis’ truly awe-inspiring Caesar is still the highlight, reaching new highs of expressiveness and, fittingly, plumbing depths and reservoirs of self-reflection. But War’s real addition to this trilogy’s lore is its justification of the plurality in its title. The first film was all Caesar and the follow-up was a pas de deux between Caesar and Koba, but War elevates Maurice and Rocket and introduces the tragically comical Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), whose very name is an embodiment of his destroyed sense of self, owing to having no like-minded community of apes to stand on. Nova (Amiah Miller), a human girl who cannot speak, is another fine addition, deepening her surrogate father figure Maurice and thinning the membrane between human and ape even further in what is essentially a film about the futility of inter-species conflict. War also finally severs the cords of human identification that has slightly dogged the series until this point, most overtly the original and its inessential, perfunctory human scientist narrative that transformed Caesar into a bystander in his own story. War prefers to focus on the raw nerves of Caesar and his ape community, particularly his closest friends. It expands on Caesar’s internal crisis as well as the external cataclysm of a society on the verge of a premature ending and a new beginning, reaching truly pop-operatic heights with both.
Reeves’ imagery is more elegiac than last time, and he and Seresin particularly wield a repository of shadow-cased darkness. Far more than a mere visual accompaniment to the dour solemnity of the script, the baleful imagery of the world around Caesar and his compatriots seems to haunt their very beings, shroud their very souls. The aesthetic here stands in contrast to the blaring colors of the original Battle of San Francisco in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where Caesar was heroically filmed from low-angles fronting his crew of lieutenants in communalizing wide-shots. War expends much energy on Caesar and these same figures engaging in political and sociological conversation – nominally closer after years of living together – yet the apes are often shot not in group master-shots but in disconcertingly fragmented close-ups, each of their faces suffused in a darkness that not only separates them but eats at their identities. The shadows, often swallowing everything but the bare essentials of their faces in darkness, suggest incomplete, almost spectral figures unable to mend their worried, anxious hearts or easily forge channels of collective unity and community action. This film is not openly about the fractious nature of the ape community, at least not as overtly so as Dawn, but the aesthetic of the film seems to constantly crack open visual fissures and introduce various frissons of disagreement and loneliness among the apes.
Do not expect a pop-art balm of cathartic action and visual bombast either; War’s disheartened screenplay avoids easy resolution or a conclusive confrontation between Caesar and the Colonel. Although the screenplay isn’t unassimilable to standard-order self-actualization narratives, War is no final act to a three-part 21st century superhero origin story. Its true spirit is altogether less modern. In fact, it plays a little too fast and loose with its bramble of classic cinematic allusions. In addition to the aforementioned Bible epics, the Colonel is both performed like Colonel Kurtz and doused in the operatic visuals that once hid Marlon Brando’s girth. Fellow ‘70s Westerns are never far over the horizon either.
I suppose it isn’t all that strange that 2017 has seen not one but two ape-fronted Apocalypse Now blockbuster analogues. After all, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, upon which Coppola’s fire-and-brimstone film was based, is among the definitive studies of white men losing their minds due to their obsessive colonial vendettas and power-grabs in African society, and the histories of both the King Kong and the Planet of the Apes franchises are tied to questions of race. In addition, with a certain monomaniacal orangutan-colored figure fronting US foreign and domestic operations these days, it’s hard not to reconnect with the not-so-dormant corpse of Nixon’s Vietnam debacle, the very corpse which Apocalypse Now so hyperbolically and baroquely exhumed in 1979. Thankfully, though, War for the Planet of the Apes is about as far from Kong: Skull Island as a blockbuster tent-pole can be.
In fact, War is a better follow-up to Skull Island’s predecessor, Gareth Edward’s Lovecraftian 2014 version of Godzilla, whose diabolical remonstration against humanity permeated not only at the level of theme (nuclear waste and anti-environmentalism create monsters) but narrative and style. Narratively, Edwards treated humanity – radically – as a bunch of pointedly-superficial, irrelevant, ricocheting anchovies being thrown in multiple directions by three beluga whales who couldn’t care less about our survival. Stylistically, he pumped out dense patches of negative space and perversely withheld cathartic reveals, drawing our attention to our perceptual blindness rather than his visual gifts to us. Skull Island attempted a Looney Tunes variation on that theme but fell short.
War is not as formally or conceptually audacious as Godzilla. Reeves’ film gives us thoughtfully-rendered but traditional protagonists who happen to be non-humans. Edwards’ film defeated our drive for complex or even identifiable protagonists in the traditional sense altogether, mocking us for our expectation that the story should wrap around the humans’ non-existent agency. Godzilla emptied the characters of dimensionality and competency and dared us to watch the non-story of our own collapse. But, while War isn’t any subterranean masterpiece, it is a suitably anti-rousing tale much closer in its grave, ragged neo-Western ambitions to this year’s other great pop-opera, Logan. Like James Mangold’s film about an essentially ape-like mutant, War for the Planet of the Apes concludes with only the most distant relative of hope. But in this universe, one clings to what they can.