By Preston Wilder
A sign on the wall makes it clear: “APE-POCALYPSE NOW”. War is a form of suspended insanity (just as it was in Apocalypse Now!, Francis Coppola’s Vietnam-set masterpiece) in War for the Planet of the Apes, a long, sombre, unabashedly emotional third instalment in the rebooted Apes franchise. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is going slightly nuts, plagued by visions of Koba – the simian extremist he killed in the second instalment – solemnly admonishing that “Ape not kill ape!”, and meanwhile his human antagonist, known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), is certifiably loco, gone flamboyantly rogue like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now!. Madness hangs in the air like a virus – though in fact there’s another virus in this post-apocalyptic world, striking humans mute even as the apes learn to talk.
The line between human and ape is alarmingly thin, hence their irrational hatred (it’s always unnerving to see oneself in the Other). The first film in the trilogy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, made it too thin, obviously limited by the technology available in 2011: Caesar, the super-smart chimp who grew up to lead his fellow primates in rebellion, looked exactly like what he was, a set of human features grafted on a monkey face, and the effect was distracting. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the second film, improved the technology but also succeeded in finding dramatic balance, playing as a neo-Western where we ended up rooting for both sides. The apes were the natives, the humans the settlers with fewer numbers, bigger firepower and a desperate need for resources, both sides slowly drawn into a war neither side really wanted. That film was superb, the highlight of the franchise so far.
This one is somewhere in between. On the one hand, the CGI is now seamless. Caesar, motion-captured by Serkis, isn’t a cheesy-looking hybrid but a convincing blend of ape and human – actually closer to ape, but with soulful expressions in the eyes that we recognise as our own. (“Look at your eyes!” marvels the Colonel. “They’re almost human.”) On the other hand, dramatic balance has been lost. It takes a while to realise it, since we open on a human soldier whose platoon gets blown to bits by the monkeys – Caesar then intervenes, sparing his life – but power has decisively shifted here. The apes are outgunned and increasingly helpless, finally corralled in a concentration camp where the Colonel’s forcing them to build a wall (an obvious Trump reference, especially since his wall – much like Trump’s – turns out to be largely irrelevant). The apes are victims, the humans mostly villains, the sole exception being a mute little girl whose gradual adoption of monkey sign-language is the sole nod to a possible future together.
It’s a flaw, making the film more simplistic and melodramatic. Caesar loses his family, driven mad by grief as well as guilt, then his last remaining baby cries out to him from behind the fence of the concentration camp. A dying ape picks a flower, placing it tenderly in the little girl’s hair. The pathos gets a bit much, especially since a social allegory is pretty much built-in to this franchise; let’s not forget that ‘monkey’ slurs have long been the insult of choice against black people (just last year, a local official in the US got in trouble for calling Michelle Obama “an ape in heels”). It’d be a shame if the Apes franchise got reduced to mere ‘victim’ politics.
Fortunately, it doesn’t. The humans too are divided and desperate, terrified that the virus is taking away “what makes us human”. Nature itself provides a subtext, very much in evidence throughout (the action takes place amid majestic landscapes, trees in blossom and a waterfall in moonlight) and turning into a deus ex machina in the explosive ending, sweeping all before it and punishing Man for having gone ‘against Nature’ by creating Caesar. Above all – and this really can’t be emphasised enough – director Matt Reeves puts emotion front and centre, much of the film being intense, often wordless exchanges shot in eloquent close-up. The apes talk (or sign) of loyalty and friendship. Little girl and orangutan bond across the species divide. Caesar shares his grief with a seemingly-deranged former zoo denizen who calls himself ‘Bad Ape’ (adding to the sense of suspended insanity) – and Bad Ape understands, empathy piercing his cloud of confusion. War for the Planet of the Apes is a slight step down for the franchise – yet it’s also the rare blockbuster that seeks out understanding over conflict, has a tortured pacifist as a hero, and functions as a softly-keening elegy for a world destroyed. Even Apocalypse Now! didn’t quite manage that.
DIRECTED BY Matt Reeves
STARRING Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn
US 2017 140 mins