(2017—Director: Matt Reeves)
Low ★★★★ (out of 5 stars)
“Maurice was right. I am like Koba. He could not escape his hate…and I still cannot escape mine.” – Caesar (Andy Serkis)
Potential spoilers below
The rebooted Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy has become the defining trilogy of the 2010s, managing to improve with each installment. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the first entry from 2011, thrilled many with the motion-capture performance of Andy Serkis (already renowned for his turn as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the first entry in The Hobbit trilogy). The performances of James Franco and especially Freida Pinto, however, have not aged well. The same applies at a lesser extent to 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, in which Jason Clarke leaves a fair impression compared to Gary Oldman’s forgettable villain. It is clear that the Apes films become better as they focus less on the humans and more on Caesar and his fellow apes, as demonstrated to breathtaking effect in War for the Planet of the Apes—the third installment of the rebooted Apes prequel trilogy.
War takes place sometime after the events of Dawn. Caesar the chimpanzee (Andy Serkis) and his ape army have established their stronghold in California’s Muir Woods. They are currently fighting off a rogue military faction known as Alpha-Omega, led by the relentless Colonel McCollough (Woody Harrelson). To Caesar’s horror, the Colonel manages to kill Caesar’s mate and eldest son, leaving him with only his infant son, Cornelius. While the rest of the apes migrate to a safer home across the desert, Caesar and a few others trail behind and embark on a dangerous revenge mission that will force Caesar to wrestle with his darker instincts.
Focusing more on the apes instead of the humans greatly strengthens War’s visual storytelling. Even with the obligatory subtitles, watching other apes communicate using American Sign Language alongside Andy Serkis’ Caesar’s human-like speech fascinates to no end. To counter Caesar’s intelligence, the film introduces another chimpanzee, “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn, Captain Fantastic), whose broken grasp of English brings comic relief to an otherwise action-packed war drama. These ape performances would not be possible without the film’s peerless visual effects team, polishing the work they began with 2011’s Rise.
Caesar and the apes dominate the story to the point that the film almost never refers to its three main humans by their true names. The most prominent of the three, of course, is Woody Harrelson as Colonel McCollough. The Colonel has increased his renegade army’s aggression towards Caesar and his ape followers because of one terrifying discovery: The Simian Flu virus that devastated Earth’s human population has mutated to de-evolving the surviving humans, robbing them of their higher functions like speech. One victim of this phenomenon is the young “Nova” (newcomer Amiah Miller), who bonds with Caesar’s mild-mannered advisor Maurice (Karin Konoval) in one of the film’s quieter standout scenes. (In the original Planet of the Apes film from 1968, “Nova” was the name of Charlton Heston’s mute mate.) The third human is “Preacher” the soldier (Gabriel Chavarria, Lowriders, Hulu’s East Los High) and while the film positions him early as a key figure in the story, “Preacher” leaves but a sliver of an impression.
One unexpected feature of War is its recurring biblical imagery and religious references. Upon arriving at the Colonel’s stronghold, Caesar comes across apes bound to crucifix-like devices. The Colonel later describes to Caesar how he had to “sacrifice his only son”. (The Colonel’s soldier son, along with other soldiers, succumbed to the Simian Flu virus’ mutated form and the Colonel ordered them executed.) We watch the Colonel bless his soldiers, whose collective name (Alpha-Omega) suggests their “divine” task of restoring humanity. Caesar’s broad role of liberating his fellow apes references Moses, emphasized further when he reacts violently to another ape getting whipped (cf. Exod 2:11) and lastly at the film’s ending (cf. Deut 34:4-5). At one point, some apes come across graffiti in an underground cave that reads “Ape-ocalypse Now”, likely to compare Woody Harrelson’s Colonel with Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz from the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now (one of cinema’s greatest war films). These images and references push the film well beyond topping its predecessor.
In the days leading up to watching War, I was readying myself for a firm and definitive follow-up to Dawn that tops it in scale and theme. Not only did I receive that with the film’s greater attention on the apes and their interactions with each other, but I also received a strong dose of religious connections that take the cinematic experience to the next level. War of the Planet of the Apes, along with The Beguiled, Baby Driver, Cars 3, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man: Homecoming, have elevated the summer movie season from its rocky start. Let us hope that Dunkirk, the upcoming Christopher Nolan war epic, continues that trend.
(Parental Note: War for the Planet of the Apes has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA “for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images.” It has also been rated 12A by the BBFC “for Moderate Violence and Injury Detail” and A-III (Adults) by the Catholic News Service for “frequent stylized violence, two uses of profanity, and a subtle anti-Christian message.” Explosions, flying ape bodies, arrow assaults, and visible blood wounds fill the screen from the start of the film. Soon afterwards, we see two dead ape bodies with bloody gunshots to the head. An ape traitor is forcibly smothered to death to avoid attracting human attention. Human soldiers who have lost their speaking abilities appear with bloodied noses and mouths. One such soldier is presumably shot off-screen, but the film cuts away before we hear a gunshot. A second human shoots himself in the head off-screen; the camera cuts to an ape standing close by before we hear the gunshot and see its flash. Various apes are bound in a way that resembles crucifixion or are whipped without mercy. An avalanche takes out a gathered group of humans.)