There’s an almost laugh out loud moment in War For the Planet of the Apes in which several of our simian heroes, traversing a tunnel underneath a massive, fortified Army mountain base, find scrawled graffiti on the wall which reads ‘Ape-ocalypse Now’. The laughter doesn’t just come from the bad pun but how, frankly, that could have been an alternate title in a much sillier world.
War For the Planet of the Apes is about both the death of humanity but also the death of the American Dream. This is exemplified through the character of The Colonel, played with quiet steel masking hardened swagger by Woody Harrelson, who is a not so veiled homage to Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now; he’s bald, he’s a stone cold military man, he has an almost hypnotic power of his troops and he’s very much gone off the reservation. The Colonel captures the madness of war, and the fear behind knowing you’ve essentially lost it.
After the critical and commercial success of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves was swiftly recruited by 20th Century Fox alongside returning writers Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver to continue and in many senses conclude the Apes saga began in Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011. While the series could continue beyond War, by the end you honestly wonder if it should. Sure, this could very easily lead into the original Planet of the Apes remade, but what would be the point? What story is left to tell? This feels like the definitive exploration of man vs ape as a complete trilogy.
There’s almost a nod to Star Wars at the very beginning, with an opening legend which name checks cleverly the previous two films and reminds us of the key story beats over the fifteen years since the events of Rise. Dawn ended with Caesar (Andy Serkis), the genetically-enhanced ape and former ‘child’ of the scientist who created the drug that made his kind brighter but also wiped out the human race, prepared for war. Humanity it seemed, after the clash between the San Francisco colony and the apes, could not co-exist. One had to go, even though that’s not what Caesar wanted.
Now, as a battle-hardened figure inspecting his troops, that’s still not what Caesar wants. After a bloody attack on one of his trenches by Army forces who are largely wiped out, after five years of war, Caesar is still trying to sue for peace and being questioned by his own kind for what is perceived as ‘weakness’ and ‘sympathy’ for the humans he grew up with. The spectre of Koba, the separatist who Caesar was forced to kill in Dawn after he led an insurrection which in many respects triggered hostilities, looms large over the film and Caesar as a character.
Caesar’s arc across the picture ends up, ironically, mirroring that of his nemesis the Colonel to some extent. Both are men driven to extremes in the end and it’s almost a surprise when Reeves turns War into, for a large tract of the film, into a ‘revenge-quest’ movie for Caesar, leading a small band of his closest apes on what could be a suicide mission to assassinate the Colonel after (in a kinetic sequence) he personally attacks their camp and murders Caesar’s wife and older son. It’s a level of personal tragedy Caesar can’t handle and as he experiences visions of Koba, he comes to realise he is *becoming* the extremist he fought so hard against, someone who cannot separate his pain from what is best for his kind overall.
Inversely, the Colonel has internalised his own pain and become obsessed with a crusading rationale in which, as every good villain does, he casts himself as the true hero of the story. Learning the virus has mutated into rendering humans mute, ape-like almost in speech (or even regressively ape given most apes can now actually talk), the Colonel kills his own infected son and works to slaughter anyone—even his own men—in containing the virus and protecting humanity from regression. The larger Army forces, presumably aware of the sanctity now of human life, are on their way to destroy him. The Colonel is utterly prepared to die a martyr, while Caesar is prepared to die to avenge his family.
Reeves’ script, through the Colonel heavily, plays not just with the idea of a fallen America destroyed by itself (we see the flag, daubed with the Colonel’s own Alpha-Omega symbol, burning as it hangs from the rafters, in a striking image), but a strong Nazism parallel. The Colonel’s hold on his troops is rapturous, he has them goosestepping around the camp chanting slogans, he positions himself at the top of the base with almost a parapet from which he can look down as the symbol on the flag drapes under him – and crucially he keeps the apes in cages without food or water and puts them to work mining under harsh conditions. His base is an ape concentration camp in all but name.
There are even ape collaborators, further extending the Nazi parallel. The character of Red is the central example; a follower of Koba who sides with the humans out of belief Caesar’s rule will lead to extermination, he typifies the presence of appeasement among ape kind and deepens their nature in the series. Red is party to the atrocities visited upon Caesar and the other apes in captivity and while he finds his own level of cathartic redemption by the conclusion, the very fact apes are willing to aid the Colonel’s fascist approach to power is an unnerving element to what is already a dark film unafraid to explore series sociological and political themes.
The Colonel also reflects the other major theme in Reeves’ film: the revenge of nature. He makes the point that apes need to be destroyed because otherwise they will replace humanity as the naturally selected dominant species, and even voices understanding of the hubris of the human race in trying to ‘play God’ by creating the drug in the first place, suggesting they have brought on their own doom. Nature as a force plays a strong role in itself in the end, exemplified in the destructive avalanche which casts down on the Army forces writ large in the end, a natural disaster the apes have the biological capacity to weather and avoid. Are larger forces at work in the world of Apes?
Maybe. Reeves’ certainly adds a spiritual element to War this time around, far more than in the previous pictures. Caesar has always been on a mythic route, given his charismatic, noble command of ape kind all the way from Rise and especially through Dawn, but here he is jointly cast as both Jesus Christ and Moses. At one point, family having been killed, starved and whipped, psychologically knocked down by the Colonel, Caesar is strapped to a cross and left out in the open. He is venerated by the imprisoned apes thanks to his strength in the face of absolute adversity and in trying to lead his people out of the forests into the deserts, a new land, he is Moses leading his people out of Canaan.
Perhaps therefore a spiritual element is at work behind the scenes, punishing humanity for their hubris and self-destruction of a planet they never owned in the first place, and giving apes another chance to exert their will over a world with a different way of life – more pastoral, more primitive, but more about community and family. Caesar is destined to become the kind of mythic figure of antiquity from these people (his name alone, with the connection back to Roman imperial nomenclature, is a further nod to this), the ape who led them to freedom and died for his quest, and it makes his arc truly profound. Talk is already circulating that Andy Serkis could be in line for a ground-breaking Oscar nomination for his motion-capture work here and it’s honestly hard to refute.
There are plenty of cheeky winks to the possibility of sequels layered into Reeves’ script and story. The mute young girl who helps the apes is named Nova, the same name of Linda Harrison’s mute human love interest for Charlton Heston’s crashed astronaut in the 1968 Planet of the Apes, while Caesar names his son Cornelius, again a nod to a character in the original film. This doesn’t necessarily mean we are being led towards that original being remade and continuing the franchise, but War clearly has a lot of love, respect and admiration for the original series of films and seeks to honour them while putting a thoroughly contemporary and stylish stamp on the franchise itself.
If War For the Planet of the Apes is where this franchise draws a line (and it almost certainly won’t be), we can enjoy the fact thanks to Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves, we’ve ended up with one of the most solid trilogies of recent years with that rarest of beasts – thanks to moving performances, a brave script unafraid to make apes the central characters and rely heavily on subtitles, a phenomenally good score by Michael Giacchino at the top of his game, and some terrific production design, we end up with a conclusion which ends the story of Caesar at the top of its game.
Farewell, Caesar. You and Andy Serkis have raised the bar for what motion capture is capable of.