War For the Planet of the Apes

July 24, 2017 by  
Filed under Movies

“I can only imagine what you think of me.”

“I think you have no mercy.”

That’s an exchange between Caesar (Andy Serkis), leader of the apes; and The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), who leads a paramilitary group known as Alpha-Omega. It borders on religious zealotry, with the way he has control over his soldiers, and what he wants to do with apes.

We are now 15 years removed from the original simian virus that began to plague the earth when Caesar was young. Beyond “Rise” and “Dawn”, the apes and humans are in a full out…war. Caesar still wants to believe in peace, while his apes have become an extremely strong and effective army. They are isolated in the forests, away from humans. But the Alpha Omega wants to wipe them all out, no matter what.

This is clearly stated after a group of AO tries to infiltrate the apes’ domain. Caesar’s army wards them off, but instead of killing their captives, he sends them back to the Colonel as a peace offering. He wants to show him that they are not savages, and that they can come to terms.

But there is no negotiating with the Colonel. He comes to the camp himself, later that night, with another group of his men. They find a group of apes sleeping, and he kills them. What he doesn’t realize, and somewhat comes to regret, is that he has taken almost everything away from Caesar. He was mostly after Caesar, who had evaded his attack; and now, Caesar wants revenge.

He has dreams of Koba, the ape who was his friend and became his enemy in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, in which Koba is still trying to convince him that all humans are evil. The Colonel makes it very easy to believe that belief.

In fact, unlike “Dawn”, there are nearly zero sympathetic human characters. We have The Colonel, who is cold and icy, extremely clinically played by Harrelson–one of his strongest roles to date. He has a right hand man, Preacher (Gabriel Chavarria), who was spared by Caesar but seemingly unaffected by his good gesture. Preacher is a killing machine, doing the bidding of The Colonel without much else of a personality.

Also doing the bidding of Alpha Omega, surprisingly, are other apes. Known as “donkeys”, these are basically servants of the humans. They load cannons, carry their loads, and sometimes are used as human shields. They are defectors from Caesar’s group, believing moreso in Koba. When Koba was killed, I guess they believed all hope was lost for them. They seem to resent Caesar and still want to survive, so they put up with humans and are treated like animals.

Caesar starts to allow his hate consume him, and goes on a revenge mission to find and kill the Colonel. The other apes had found a peaceful relocation in the desert, where they would be far away from humans and their relentless pursuit of genocide. Caesar wants to go alone, but his closest friends and soldiers won’t let that happen. We’re reintroduced to his inner circle: Maurice the Orangutan (Karin Konoval), who still can mostly only use sign language to speak, much like many of the other apes; Rocket (Terry Notary), a chimpanzee, and Luca, a gorilla. They set off, while the other apes go their own way to find the desert.

The troupe run into a home, occupied by a single man, who tries to kill them. When he is killed first, the apes enter the house, and find a little girl (Amiah Miller). They try to find out her name, but she cannot speak. Maurice convinces Caesar to take her with them, even though he is reluctant.

They also come across what is basically the film’s only comic relief, a zoo chimp named “Bad Ape” (that’s what he calls himself), played by Steve Zahn. Some of his antics are a little off in tone; but for the most part, he’s a needed mood breaker, as the film is very bleak nearly throughout.

This comes to a head when Caesar reaches AO’s compound, only to find that his ape companions that were set off to find the desert have been captured and are being used for hard labor to build a wall. Political undertones, anyone? Quite timely.

As stated above, this film pulls no punches in its narrative. The seemingly heartless Colonel truly is wicked and incessantly cruel to the apes. He has some exchanges personally with Caesar, whom he begrudgingly admires in a way. But then we learn why the Colonel is the way he is: he had a son, who had the virus, but survived. Apparently, the side effect is…devolution. He began to lose his ability to speak, and was reduced to being “an animal” in his fathers’ eyes. When Caesar accuses him of being without mercy, the Colonel throws the virus in Caesar’s face, and asks what’s merciful.

We learn that this devolution has affected a great deal of humans. Along their way to the compound, Caesar and his group come across soldiers left for dead, that also cannot speak–much like the girl. It is assumed she is affected by this as well.

So, the Colonel wants to “purify” the human race by doing away with any survivors who are still infected with the disease. It’s never explicitly explained, but that seems to be why he’s building a wall. Isolate the pure, and destroy everything else.

It would first seem that the Colonel represents the rest of the human race–but that’s not the case. AO is a defector group themselves. And apparently, the other armies are coming for them.

All of this, of course, sets up a large battle as Caesar tries to free the apes, meanwhile the Colonel prepares for the other human armies to come after him.

The film does a fascinating job of steering clear of cliches and tropes that usually bog down a narrative like this. It’s not that humans are bad, they’re misguided. It’s not that apes are savages, either, obviously. But beyond that, there are things that happen that are unexpected, and the surprises are very satisfying. Of course, the strong performances by Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson help the film greatly. And, like in “Dawn”, the CGI is amazing. Even more brilliant in this one, I think. I really never felt like I was watching computer generated images. The apes, interacting with the humans and landscapes, all felt real.

There are some tough parts to watch: there is torture, and senseless deaths. There are times where you really do get emotionally involved to the point where you forget you’re watching a science fiction film. Of course there’s symbolism here; but it can be appreciated on a very literal level as well. Mercy, forgiveness, and intolerance are at the forefront. But even subtle hints at language and communication are handled well. In fact, in the last half hour or so of the film, there is almost no dialogue at all.

Caesar’s struggle with dealing with humans is challenged by the innocence of the girl, whom he grows an affection for. The Colonel should be an easily hated villain; but something happens that changes your perception on that as well. And just when you think you know where the climax is going, something else happens that shakes everything up–literally.

This is a rare rebooted series, in which it got stronger with each film, culminating in this film, which I believe is as close to a masterpiece as you can get. The weaker elements (the tonal shifts with Bad Ape, and the underdeveloped Preacher) are far outweighed by the strengths of everything else. This is a visually remarkable film; but it’s also emotionally gripping, and extremely intense in its third act.

It certainly belongs in the discussion of great trilogies; and even if the series continues, if it is left in the hands of Matt Reeves and the others that made these films, I think it has limitless possibilities. We’ve seen the “rise”, the “dawn” and now the “war”. If that’s the end, I have no complaints.

But I can’t deny that I’d be hungry for more, if they continued to surprise me like they did here.

My rating: :D