“War for the Planet of the Apes” Pictures a Post-Human World
Issue   |   Wed, 09/13/2017 - 01:26
Andy Serkis, starring as Caesar, and Woody Harrelson, the colonel, play the main characters at war with each other for control of the planet.

Every three years or so, the world’s greatest invisible actor Andy Serkis decides over morning coffee that the time is ripe to once more pretend that he is an ape. He then contacts director Matt Reeves, and a secret monastic order of computer wizards aid him in his quest. Critics and audience unite in their marvel at Hollywood’s thickening silver screen spellbook and the quiet brilliance of the man behind the monkey. Then, they forget Serkis and his associates, with nary a faux-obituary at the unfailingly disappointing Academy Awards.

To be sure, when “Dawn” rolled in after “Rise,” people unarchived their collective memory about how the original film deftly mapped human emotion on an ape’s face, how it skillfully grafted mainstream sensibility unto intellectual ambition, and carved out its transient niche as the thinking primate’s blockbuster. The third entry, “War,” seems inbound for a similar critical reception, but if the box office records are any indication, it faces diminishing returns. It is an understandable pity. On the one hand, “War” arrives in theaters almost six years after the first installment, and dips its opposable toes in an overflow of reimagined 20th-century intellectual properties that simply did not exist in the innocent year of 2011. What’s more, with Marvel’s model of labyrinthine continuity that weaves tens of box office champions and Netflix experiments into a profitable knot, the ape trilogy’s classical one-two-three comes off as rote. On the other hand, the “Apes” movies make the absolute most out of the familiar three-film structure, and the newest iteration delivers a thematically resonant conclusion to Caesar’s story, consciously elevating itself as a founding myth of the new ape world, only to dismantle itself with its details in order to pose its — our — enduring questions.

“War” begins amidst the overgrown foliage of the new world, from the eyes of human survivors. Apes loiter in the distance, constantly remote and other. This particular opening is especially jarring because these survivors are dressed in military field gear and point automatic rifles. Surely enough, the movie segues into a scene of slaughter. This is the war that has dawned, the film assures: a clash of civilizations, between ape and man. And as Caesar enters the foray to examine the decimated ranks of his people, we are once more assured of the side we are to take. Yes, these humans, with their eyes full of fright aiming their guns full of lead, have lost their way and minds. Whatever humanity is left on this planet, it lies with the apes. The conviction only hardens and heats when Woody Harrelson’s fearsome Colonel makes his presence known. Here stands and rules a reactionary, followed by his army of skinheads. When he lashes out against the apes and all but proclaims the fourteen words for human purity, the Colonel recalls the worst of us and our times, and we reflexively hope for Caesar to cross his Rubicon and upend the remains of the republic. As much as the film drapes an ape over the human, the movie places the human underneath the ape, and has us see through their eyes, think their thoughts, believe their mythology. From this perspective, we remember the “Apes” movies of the past and foresee the story’s future.

It is the scene at the very end of the first “Planet of the Apes,” where Charlton Heston’s stranded astronaut realizes the strange land he has found is actually home. He sees the ruins of the Statue of Liberty and falls to his knees, wailing and pounding the guiltless sand, god-damning it all to hell. The image is piteous in its own movie, but here, it gives hope of the apes’ — our — eventual victory. With such hope, one plucks a handful of popcorn, anticipating a war to be assuredly waged and assuredly won, a war for the planet of the apes.

This could have been it for the “Ape” trilogy: an extravagant spectacle of blood and beliefs that celebrates uncomplicated loyalty to the values that we can all assume we have and the Colonel does not. But “War for the Planet of the Apes” stands out because of its drive to do more. The opening skirmish between soldiers and soldier-apes misdirects the movie’s audience. The rest of the film reneges on the simple promises of its marketing. In the process, it commits several small mistakes in pacing. A particularly egregious one involves flowers, in which a character reveals a first hint of personality in three movies only to be retired in the subsequent scene. But even as it stumbles over its obstacles, “War” runs, and runs with flair. And as it approaches its finish line, the definition of the “War” becomes increasingly unstable. What began as Caesar’s war to conquer the Colonel’s Canaan is rearranged and reinterpreted as a war against bondage. In the process, Caesar grows from leader to loner, Joshua to Moses. The war is not for the planet. It is for Caesar’s heart. This is the most profound twist of the film, and what takes the film to such admirable heights. The dramatic drive of these movies is that these monkeys, gorillas and orangutans are becoming smarter than we. “War” challenges that drive, and exposes the horror that is greater still: Why are we afraid of them?

So this is the film’s Egypt: the history of a dead civilization that during its turn constantly lionized the mind over the heart. And over this Egypt, no Pharaoh can preside. Harrelson turns in a powerful performance that beat for beat matches Serkis’. Their conversation in the middle of the film is perhaps the most accomplished scene in the trilogy, if not the most revealing about the thematic and narrative conceits of this series. But the secret behind that power is pathos. If Caesar is that biblical savior, the Colonel is the Greek hero, doomed by hubris. Yet that hubris is not his; it is a family heirloom, passed on from the Stone Age to now, when everything once more returns to stone. And in that long, short span of time, is it even possible that the Colonel is the only villain who did not let the people go? This is the character-touch that completes the demolition of expectations; by the film’s end, the audience rooting for Caesar is made to know that their feet don’t look like hands.

It is not to say the film completely shuns myth. As much as Caesar is Moses, the conclusion of the film plays like the final chapter of Deuteronomy, and there are Christ images littered throughout the film’s runtime. Unsurprising, “War,” along with the two previous installments, is a film about the past. The past that Charlton Heston missed: the story of how ours became the planet of the apes. The past where that movie and its sequels became pop culture icons, touching upon the ancient terror of replacement with varying degrees of grace. The past, of countless movies, books and comics now being remade and rebooted, affirming our unspoken need for repeated and reinterpreted stories that speak to the now and soon and later. “War” counts itself consciously and proudly among these stories, and for however long it might stay in our minds this time around, it impresses as perhaps one of the most accomplished, and without doubt one of the most satisfying, finales to a blockbuster series of all time.