War for the Planet of the Apes Lacks the Courage of Its Convictions

Koba should’ve won.

Eileen Jones July 17, 2017

The orangutan Maurice adopts a human child in Twentieth Century Fox’s War for the Planet of the Apes. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox-TM & © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.)

I’m a ded­i­cat­ed fan of the Plan­et of the Apes films. I’ve cheered on the recent reboots, start­ing with Rise of the Plan­et of the Apes in 2011 and fol­lowed by Dawn of the Plan­et of the Apes in 2014. For all their weak­ness­es (look­ing at you, James Fran­co), both had inspired action scenes, the bril­liance of Andy Serkis as Cae­sar and the soar­ing dra­mat­ic pow­er of ape rev­o­lu­tion nar­ra­tives. Their allu­sions to human rev­o­lu­tions through his­to­ry made them thrilling alle­gories for activists on the Left.

You cherish hopes of all the imprisoned apes breaking out and ferociously running down their fleeing human tormentors.

So it sad­dens me to report that, though there are still great scenes of pri­mate con­flict, the third film of the tril­o­gy suc­cumbs in the end to fatal chick­en-heart­ed­ness. I wor­ried about the ear­ly signs in Dawn of the Plan­et of the Apes, where at times it seemed direc­tor Matt Reeves and his co-writer Mark Bom­back opt­ed for a wob­bly false equiv­a­lence between the vio­lent actions of oppressed apes and oppres­sor humans. 

With War, Reeves and his team tie them­selves into knots try­ing to avoid stag­ing the all-out ape vs. human war promised in the title. They seem to be work­ing from a man­date that says the cor­ro­sive­ly vicious humans have to die some­how, but not at the hands of apes. So in the finale, we are treat­ed to a series of deus ex machi­na dis­as­ters to rid the apes of these mon­sters. In its excess, it remind­ed me of a great old Daffy Duck car­toon called The Scar­let Pumper­nick­el, in which Daffy, pitch­ing a script and try­ing to come up with the most awe­some cli­mat­ic action, starts des­per­ate­ly impro­vis­ing cat­a­stro­phes: Then the dam broke! … The vol­cano erupt­ed! … The price of food­stuff skyrocketed!” 

To be fair, the begin­ning of the movie gives us some bat­tle scenes, and they’re won­der­ful­ly grip­ping, shot in brood­ing 65 mil­lime­ter for max­i­mum grav­i­ty. But ape casu­al­ties are high, and the new plan is to escape human ter­ri­to­ry alto­geth­er, ced­ing the north­west­ern forests to those nasty fur­less crea­tures not wor­thy of such sub­lime ter­rain. Cae­sar aims to lead his apes through the desert beyond into unin­hab­it­ed ter­ri­to­ry, seek­ing a rumored par­adise, like a chim­panzee Moses.

Before they go, the apes hole up for one last night in a sys­tem of caves masked from view by a water­fall. Because the place is so stark­ly beau­ti­ful, you know it has to be defiled hor­ri­bly. Cae­sar, keep­ing watch by night, sees a mys­te­ri­ous green light flick­er­ing through the cas­cad­ing water, reach­es into it and finds the rap­pel lines of human sol­diers already infil­trat­ing the caves.

After the ensu­ing mas­sacre, Cae­sar sends the sur­vivors on their way to ape-par­adise and heads back alone to kill the com­mand­ing offi­cer respon­si­ble, the vile, bald-head­ed Kurtz-like fig­ure the Colonel” (Woody Har­rel­son in fine mono­ma­ni­a­cal form).

If you don’t get that Apoc­a­lypse Now film ref­er­ence right away, there’s some help­ful graf­fi­ti on a wall lat­er on to clue you in: Ape-poca­lypse Now.” There are also Bridge on the Riv­er Kwai cita­tions, to give you a sense of Matt Reeves’ ambi­tions — he means to put his lat­est endeav­or in the war film hall of fame.

And War for the Plan­et of the Apes is already gar­ner­ing such admir­ing crit­i­cal reac­tion, espe­cial­ly for its unde­ni­ably bril­liant use of CGI, Vari­ety put out a call to revive the Spe­cial Achieve­ment” Acad­e­my Award in its hon­or. Gen­er­al­ly giv­en to films with ground­break­ing visu­al effects, it was last award­ed in 1996 to John Las­seter and the Pixar team for Toy Sto­ry.

But Reeves’ ambi­tion has its pit­falls. He risks imi­tat­ing what was bad about high­ly praised war films as well as what was good. For exam­ple, do you remem­ber that immense­ly long, drag­gy, talky, pseu­do-pro­found scene with Col. Kurtz (Mar­lon Bran­do) late in Apoc­a­lypse Now that sig­nals the end of all the film’s best stuff? Well, there’s a ver­sion of that scene mid­way through War, and it stops the movie dead and embalms it this time around, too.

The lack of war in this war movie is embod­ied by the nag­ging group of pri­mates who insist on accom­pa­ny­ing Cae­sar on his assas­si­na­tion mis­sion, led by mor­al­iz­ing orang­utan Mau­rice (Karin Kono­val). Mau­rice nev­er lets up on telling Cae­sar revenge is wrong. You sound like Koba,” he warns, refer­ring to the scarred bonobo sur­vivor of human lab exper­i­ments who, in Dawn of the Plan­et of the Apes, under­cuts Caesar’s author­i­ty and seeks total war with humans.

But that’s the thing — fun­da­men­tal­ly, Koba wasn’t wrong. All-out war was always on the horizon.

Along the way the small band of apes search­ing for the Colonel run across a lit­tle girl (Ami­ah Miller) in an aban­doned vil­lage who’s been ren­dered mute by the Simi­an Flu that killed off most of the human pop­u­la­tion. The Colonel believes this mutism brings humans clos­er to ani­mals, which mad­dens him and dri­ves him to anni­hi­late the apes along with any humans dis­play­ing such symptoms.

I found myself silent­ly beg­ging Matt Reeves, Not a mute lit­tle girl, like some­thing out of an old D.W. Grif­fith melo­dra­ma. Please.” But, because Mau­rice insists that they bring her along, from then on every ape in the band has to have a touch­ing moment with the girl to teach them that human beings aren’t all bad. Don’t even get me start­ed on the scene with the big goril­la Luca (Michael Adamth­waite) lov­ing­ly plac­ing a pink flower behind her ear.

Then they pick up a chimp named Com­ic Relief who’s hid­ing from the bad place,” a con­cen­tra­tion camp run by the Colonel. In it, impris­oned, starved and tor­tured apes are made to build a wall to keep out the oth­er high­ly mil­i­ta­rized fac­tion of human­i­ty that oppos­es the Colonel. The wall is the sign of the mad mil­i­tary delu­sion, as is the bridge in Bridge on the Riv­er Kwai. (It’s also a top­i­cal jab at Trump’s delu­sion­al bor­der wall between the U.S. and Mexico.) 

I was just kid­ding about the name Com­ic Relief. The for­mer zoo chimp, now sur­viv­ing as a timid scav­enger, calls him­self Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), illus­trat­ing how non-rad­i­cal­ized apes have inter­nal­ized the stan­dards imposed on them by humans. Else­where, ape ser­vants work­ing for the humans answer to the name of don­key” (pre­sum­ably after the beast of bur­den as well as the Don­key Kong game) and accept their degrad­ing treat­ment in vain hopes of being allowed to sur­vive the human vs. ape war.

So the scene is set for a final con­fronta­tion. You cher­ish hopes of all the impris­oned apes break­ing out and fero­cious­ly run­ning down their flee­ing human tor­men­tors, of all the don­keys” simul­ta­ne­ous­ly turn­ing on their mas­ters,” and of Cae­sar rip­ping out the Colonel’s beat­ing heart and mak­ing him eat it.

Or maybe that’s just me.

There’s a won­der­ful moment when Cae­sar admits, I am like Koba,” so dam­aged by con­tact with humans that he no longer sees any way out of total war against human­i­ty. After cap­ture and sub­se­quent escape, he goes back for a reck­on­ing with the Colonel, who’s hid­ing out in his lair perched at Nurem­burg Ral­ly height above the men who wor­ship him. At that point, you’re almost fooled into think­ing, Final­ly. Now it’s on. Con­cen­tra­tion camp means vio­lent reprisals are justified.”

But at the same time, you already know you’re stuck with the wheezy old revenge plot that demon­strates how revenge solves noth­ing and only hurts the avenger. It’s one of the rare ways in which genre films tend to fail us. They’re usu­al­ly our friends, pro­vid­ing us with every­thing that’s rou­tine­ly denied us, excite­ment and plen­ti­ful erot­i­ca and breath­tak­ing action and zowee spec­ta­cle and self-indul­gent plea­sures galore. But though we almost nev­er get revenge in real life, and any work­ing-class per­son knows what it’s like to be kicked around while nev­er dar­ing to kick back, pop­u­lar films rarely give us com­plete, uncom­pro­mis­ing, feel-good revenge.

Count­less times we’ve watched venge­ful pro­tag­o­nists for sol­id two-hour blocks on the trail of the evil bas­tards who wronged them, only to have them decide at the end that revenge is wrong, or beneath them, or that the ulti­mate pun­ish­ment is to let the bas­tards live so they can think about what they’ve done. It’s embit­ter­ing — and in this case, puz­zling. Why spend a whole movie teach­ing Cae­sar to empathize with human­i­ty once again? That’s where he start­ed all the way back in Rise of the Plan­et of the Apes, lov­ing humans who relent­less­ly betrayed him and his fel­low apes. And look how well that’s gen­er­al­ly turned out for him!

Not least among the puz­zling fac­tors in this film is a weird flour­ish at the end when a hope­ful glimpse of an unin­hab­it­ed promised land appears to be shot in direct imi­ta­tion of John Ford West­erns. First we see the grand crag­gy mesas of Mon­u­ment Val­ley, then the sky near sun­set that looks as if it were paint­ed by one of the Old Mas­ters over the val­ley of promise below. Can Reeves mean to present this For­dian image straight­for­ward­ly as a gen­uine glimpse of America’s promise?

It’s weird because most of us have a dif­fer­ent atti­tude now toward Ford’s visions of the West as unspoiled par­adise than peo­ple did back in the 1940s. Hell, by the end of his career, Ford didn’t seem to think they were so hot either, as he increas­ing­ly took on the racism, emp­ty jin­go­ism, vig­i­lante vio­lence and eco­nom­ic exploita­tion built into America’s exper­i­men­tal democ­ra­cy. The false­ness of that utopi­an vision of Amer­i­can excep­tion­al­ism, or at the very least, the com­pro­mis­ing shad­ows that should always have been includ­ed in it, would come to haunt Ford in grim late-career films like The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Lib­er­ty Valance, Sergeant Rut­ledge and Cheyenne Autumn.

I like to think Matt Reeves and his team real­ize the com­plex impli­ca­tions of going back to Ford to show us the promise of our civ­i­liza­tion, and are tee­ing up the Apes sequel in prop­er­ly fore­bod­ing terms.

Maybe Down­fall of the Plan­et of the Apes next time?

Eileen Jones is a film crit­ic at Jacobin and author of the book Film­suck, USA. She teach­es at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berkeley.
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