War for the Planet of the Apes features a misleading title, but the film itself is an amazing contemplation on the human concepts of mercy and revenge.
The end of the original film series, Battle of the Planet of the Apes, saw Ape leader Caesar attempting to mend the wounds between his kind and man. They lived together in a proto-Ape society. Some men taught Ape children to read, but most took over the servant roles the Apes were forced into decades earlier. Though a few of the men in Caesar’s circle feared what this would lead to, he tried his best to halt any anti-human feelings among his followers — particularly the nascent gorilla military lead by General Aldo. And while conspiracies formed around him, Caesar openly wondered if it is right to destroy evil. Sadly, that film was made on the cheap and all of its interesting ideas were tossed aside when human mutants from a nuclear-scared Los Angeles attack.
War for the Planet of the Apes finds itself in the same philosophical ground. Two years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar and his followers continue to defy the remnant of the American human military. They also plan to make a perilous quest across a desert to a fertile land where no humans dwell. For the Apes, it’s finally a chance to live in peace and put aside the scars left by the Simian Flu, civilization’s end and the actions of Koba.
Of course, those scars do not heal easily as the last of his followers have joined the humans and Caesar discovers he contains a darkness like Koba.
In lieu of a traditional war film, War for the Planet of the Apes is very much a journey. As the Apes make for this new land, Caesar and his original crew of Maurice and Rocket head for the human camp so that Caesar might revenge himself on the human colonel (Woody Harrelson). Along the way, they discover a mute human girl and Bad Ape, a former zoo animal raised to the power of speech thanks to the Simian Flu. This sequence, largely without dialogue, goes a long way to explore the bonds between Caesar and his original followers. Maurice, in particular, becomes a deeper character as he defies Caesar in order to bring the girl along. And though this Apes cycle has been low on humor, Bad Ape (performed by Steve Zahn) brings a welcome dose of legitimate comic relief.
But as the film goes on, it becomes clear just how dangerous Caesar’s need for revenge will be for Ape society. And once he and the Colonel confront one another, the conflict between mercy and vengeance becomes the focal point of the the film. Even at their cheesiest, the Apes films — not counting Tim Burton’s failed reboot — have always wrestled with core human ideas even as they presented them from rubber ape masks. But never has a concept resonated like this conflict between mercy and revenge. It is, in many ways, the core idea of the current Ape cycle with Caesar quelling his anger thanks to his awareness of mercy. And though Koba died in the last film, his inability to forgive humanity for his pain literally haunts War. In fact, the “war” of the title many not refer to the open conflict featured in the film, but the internal struggle inside Caesar for the soul of the planet.
That a talking ape movie can contain such weighty subjects is remarkable. But that it is accomplished with such technical precision that one can write about the film’s thematic concerns almost without mentioning them is a truly stellar achievement.
As always, Andy Serkis deserves aplomb and recognition for the depth and soul he brings to Caesar. While aided by an army of technicians, it is really his underlying performance that makes the character so compelling. In his voice and his movements, he commits to this not-quite-human creature entirely. Though the look of Caesar is augmented by astonishingly great visual effects, the interior conflict of the character in close-up is provided entirely by a performer who has learned across decades to wield digital characters with elegance and subtly. It is, perhaps, a crowning achievement that you never once stop to think about how Caesar is realized. He is a completely and wholly alive.
Though not a war film in the traditional sense, the film is jam-packed with tension from the first shot. No character feels secure or safe and death can happen in an instant. It’s easy to create this tension in scenes of open conflict, but director Matt Reeves accomplishes it in wide shots of abandoned sea-side villages and lonely mountain passes. He also realizes combat very well. In fact, it is almost a shame there isn’t more of a war to be fought for how well those scenes are staged. Instead, the film pivots into an escape flick, providing a new and interesting tension even as Caesar struggles with mercy nearby.
In fact, those pivots are another achievement of the film. It moves from the tense and serious to gentle and sweet to lightly funny with grace. For fans of older Apes films, it also makes astonishing visual references to the cheesiest one of them all: Beneath the Planet of the Apes. It also sets the stage for a full remake of the first Planet of the Apes should 20th Century Fox choose to go in that direction. But perhaps more interestingly, War for the Planet of the Apes has secured the right for a subsequent Apes film to take place entirely within Ape society without the need of a speaking human character. Exploring the planet of the apes without a Charelton Heston like savior character would be a bold and interesting idea. Much the same way War for the Planet of the Apes matter-of-factly presents the ape collaborators without really confronting the issue.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a summer blockbuster, but it is, perhaps, the most thoughtful and soulful of this year’s releases. It is bold even when it’s quiet and its themes will resonate long after the viewer has left the theater.