REVIEW: War for the Planet of the Apes

16 07 2017

Though its title may lead you to believe otherwise, Matt Reeves’ “War for the Planet of the Apes” shows precious little war. There are extended action sequences, but nothing rises to the level of a full battle. This is not a war movie, at least not in the traditional sense in which audiences are conditioned to perceive one. It’s not about the fights; rather, it’s about what we seek to preserve by fighting them in the first place.

Caesar (once again masterfully brought to life by Andy Serkis) and his band of apes that believe in their right to receive dignified treatment find themselves in an asymmetrical fight with the humans. The original intelligent inhabiters of earth, backed into a corner after the Simian Flu decimates their kind, do not exactly take kindly to sharing their planet with another sentient species. The apes are fighting a war of ideals – for peace, unity and solidarity. The humans are fighting a war of extermination, one where the only measure of victory is the complete degradation and eradication of their opponent.

As a viewer in 2017, I could not help but see parallels between the ape-human conflict and the current war against ISIS. The men who pervert Islam’s tenets can claim a win on their battleground when their actions force the western world to abandon their principles. If we choose to fight as they fight, responding to barbarity with inhumanity, we cede to their strategy and expose our own hollowness.

But as “War for the Planet of the Apes” drew on (and it does so perhaps more than it should), it became clear to me that Reeves had far more on his mind with the film than just the conflict du jour. This entire iteration of the franchise smartly avoids tying itself entirely to the events surrounding its making. Indeed, recent rewatches of 2011’s “Rise” and 2014’s “Dawn” already indicate the series’ malleability to the whims of the present; both films feel as if they refer to something entirely separate from what they did upon release. The “War” of Reeves’ film is not a war but all wars. It’s a rap sheet against human atrocity justified by armed conflict from, one could argue, biblical times to our contemporary ones.

Woody Harrelson in War for the Planet of the Apes

Caesar, seeking to protect his tribe from the harm humans seek to do against them, plunges himself into the belly of their extinction operation. It’s masterminded by Woody Harrelson’s colonel, a fearsome figuring combining the bald bloat of Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz from “Apocalypse Now” with Ralph Fiennes’ unhinged S.S. commandant Amon Göth from “Schindler’s List.” To subjugate their opponents, humans resort to crucifixion, slave labor and concentration camps – some of which run on the force of other primates, lured into doing their captors’ bidding by spared punishment or false promises of equality.

Depending on which way you look at “War for the Planet of the Apes,” you can see the fascistic colonel and his henchmen as Pharaoh and the Egyptians, a Southern plantation owner and his staff or Hitler and the Nazis. Though Reeves’ script does eventually grant us a keyhole into the justification for his decision-making, it’s hard to look at his rule as anything other than the greatest hits album for human savagery. We’re pretty much the worst.

Yes, there are some traditionally problematic frameworks in which certain groups (particularly black Americans) have been likened to apes, using their relative underdevelopment compared to humans as a symbol for inferiority. “War for the Planet of the Apes” is the flipside of that comparison. The apes, here, can stand in for any group that a tyrannical majority decides to demonize and denigrate as undeserving of consideration as humans. Caesar and his pack of compassionate primates, however, deserve our respect because they are so much like us. When we look to share our humanity, we are best served by focusing on our shared similarities – not our minor differences. B+



One response

22 07 2017

Still in awe at how much I liked this movie.

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