Apocalypse Ape: In “War for the Planet of the Apes,” We Continue to Root for Our Own Destruction

War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2017)

Lest one be confused about the timeline of the current Planet of the Apes franchise, War for the Planet of the Apes (#3) opens with title cards that remind of us how we got here. First, there was Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in 2011, in which Caesar, a young chimpanzee raised by humans, was exposed to a manufactured virus that raised his intelligence and gave him the power of speech. Next, with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, in 2014, we discovered how that same virus wiped out 90% of humanity, allowing a community of super-smart simians (led by Caesar) to flourish in the woods near San Francisco. Now, after another three years (in audience time, not movie time), we find that same community under siege as the remaining humans make one last push to regain their dominance, all the while suffering from a new symptom caused by a mutated form of the virus that set this all of this in motion to begin with.

This entire universe is inspired by the original movie series, begun in 1968 (containing five films, total), which was itself loosely inspired by French author Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel, La Planête des singes. Both that first series and this current one (not so much the novel) focus on how humanity’s technological hubris has led to our downfall. As apocalyptic tales go, Planet of the Apes 2.1 (we would all like to forget Tim Burton’s misbegotten failure of 2001, but it did, alas, happen) is an example of gripping, well-realized storytelling, though neither Dawn nor War can quite compare to Rise, which was near-perfect in its reimagining of the premise. Still, War is an extremely competent action-thriller, though a little too in love with its Apocalypse Now metaphors.

The film opens with a brazen, unprovoked attack on Caesar’s forest idyll by the humans, who have enlisted renegade gorillas as helpmates. These apes have the word “donkey” (as in, Donkey Kong) scrawled in white across their backs. It’s degrading, but the events of Dawn – featuring an internecine conflict among the newly sentient simians – left some unhappy with Caesar’s leadership, which explains the species betrayal. Despite this assistance, the humans lose, though the defeat presages victories to come, as it reveals the exact location of Caesar’s hideout. A series of violent skirmishes ensue, with tragic consequences, and before long the humans have the upper hand. They are led by Woody Harrelson (Wilson), as a man known only as “The Colonel,” whose ruthless tactics prove successful, time and again.

Harrelson is all bold swagger, bringing his usual powerful charisma to the screen, but here he is almost undone by the director’s constant in-your-face references to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 cinematic mess of a masterpiece about the Vietnam War. From the 1970s rock-n-roll Harrelson plays on his turntable, to the close-ups of the back of his bald pate as he shaves, to the hazy panorama of oncoming helicopters, it’s just too obvious an homage. We get it: he’s Kurtz, with the same arrogance and madness. Kong: Skull Island, earlier this year, trafficked in similar imagery, so maybe director Matt Reeves just has the unfortunate bad luck to come second.

Beyond that, however, Reeves (who directed Dawn, though not Rise) and his team of digital wizards and motion-capture actors are fully in charge of the narrative, creating a chilling and compelling vision of a world in which we humans are the villains. I have been constantly amazed at the ability of this series to make me root for those who would destroy me and my kind. And yet here we are, crying at each ape death and cheering for each ape triumph. Andy Serkis (Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series), as Caesar, is a large part of the reason why, yet so are the screenplays, which, in each film, brilliantly set up character and situation so that we fully identify with the apes. We may be dying, but boy, can we make a movie!

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