Caesar is on the big screen again, and he’s no longer calling off his apes. This time around, it’s a blood feud, and the leader of the apes is hellbent on vengeance.
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES — 7.3 of 10
No Spoiler Synopsis
Caesar is changed. Koba ruined peace between the apes and men in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and now Caesar and his people are in hiding, just trying to survive. When the humans, under the command of their leader, The Colonel, perform a military sting operation that leads to deception, betrayal, and death, Caesar has had enough, and sets out on a blood hunt for the one responsible. His journey takes him deeper into darkness than he or his friends ever thought he would go.
What to Expect
Ridley Scott & Co. crank out another gripping and visually masterful installment, entitled War for the Planet of the Apes, this being the third in the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy. This episode opens with a changed Caesar, and a changed race of apes. The apes have split now, some aligning with humans, some remaining loyal to Caesar and the majority of their kind. Peace is a memory, and the human military, under the command of Colonel McCullough, is sending out sting operations to surveil and exterminate ape forces.
As in previous Apes films, Caesar is brought to life by Andy Serkis. Since his breakout role as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies, demand for Serkis at the core of feature films seems to have skyrocketed, and he never disappoints. His passion as Caesar sears poignantly in this film, even beneath the mask of motion capture (if you don’t know what that is and want to, go here). Serkis’s counterpart and nemesis, the unstable and fanatical Colonel John McCullough, is played by Haymitch—*cough* sorry—Woody Harrelson. This is an interesting role for Woody, and my initial reaction upon seeing him cast as McCullough was skeptical. Harrelson flexes his acting chops and pins down the role, giving the character an emotional depth full of suppressed anger and inexplicable calmness bordering on insanity.
The cinematography in the film is excellent, and typically stays very in-the-moment as Caesar battles intense emotions throughout the film. Scott uses some POV (point-of-view) shots, giving the audience a unique look at the world through Caesar’s eyes. The energy of the characters infuses every sequence, the pacing reflecting each moment concisely, whether frantic or serene. The film is sprinkled with some beautiful vistas as well, many snowy.
The story is gripping, certainly, and plays out in a way that feels very natural and authentic. Caesar is much more emotionally volatile than we have seen him before, but this seems justified by the circumstances. However, he does seem to deviate from the behavior one might expect from an ape who is supposed to be more evolved (artificially) than the humans.
One climactic moment between Caesar and the Colonel fell flat for me. Throughout the movie, the Colonel is engaged in a campaign with one goal: exterminate all apes. When a maverick Caesar seeking vengeance on the Colonel is captured and dragged before McCullough in chains, the Colonel explains to the leader of the apes why humans are on a mission to make the evolved monkeys extinct. The ALZ-112 virus has modified, and humans who contract this new strain are devolving, losing the ability to speak, seemingly reversed to a Stone Age state. When an epidemic broke out, The Colonel took matters into his own hands, even killing his own infected son. McCullough then describes how miserable he felt, looking into his child’s trusting eyes and then killing him, but he justifies this murder by painting himself as one on a holy mission.
While a barbaric and drastic measure, the Colonel is killing off infected humans to prevent the spread of the virus in maybe the best way—or at least the most effective way—he knows how. It is cruel logic, but it’s backed by reasoning nonetheless (twisted reasoning though it may be). But why is McCullough on a mission to slaughter Caesar’s apes? Apes aren’t infecting humans. All the apes loyal to Caesar have retreated into hiding. The human military has enlisted many disloyal apes, branded “donkeys”, so McCullough seems not to be worried in the slightest about these apes infecting his troops. Clearly this new variant of the ALZ-112 is being spread human to human. Humans created the virus, contracted it, and now are spreading it. How is genocide against a race that’s trying to stay as far away from mankind as possible going to stop the spread of a contagion that the humans are getting from their own kind in the first place?
McCullough states, almost as a reason or partial reason, that if he doesn’t prevent the spread of the virus by his extreme measures, all the remaining humans on the planet will eventually contract the virus and devolve, making Earth truly a planet of apes. So? If the apes aren’t perpetuating the problem, it seems like the Colonel may just be an ego maniac who doesn’t like the thought of being less evolved than an ape. Seriously, McCullough? Address the real problem.
It’s also never addressed whether the devolved humans are conscious of the fact that they’ve devolved. What does the virus take from the humans other than their ability to speak? In other words, as a viewer seeing it the first time, I wanted to know what the humans’ mental state was after they contracted the virus. Are they suffering psychological torment at the conscious knowledge that they once were much more than they have fallen to? Or are they completely unaware, as a dog no conception of what it is like to be a conscious human? This little accumulation of unanswered questions, in the middle of a generally excellent movie, left me feeling that the Colonel’s motivations were a bit hollow, and by extension, the motivations of a human military force obeying his orders. In fact, developments arise that lead the viewer to believe that not all humans are happy with McCullough and his actions. All in all, we come back to the fact that there is no strong connection made between the Colonel killing all apes and stopping the spread of the virus among men. Ape genocide seems a misdirected solution to the problem.
McCullough’s monologue and the account of his son’s death do not sway Caesar. Later, the leader of the apes escapes confinement and seeks out the Colonel, finding him in his quarters. The ape takes up McCullough’s pistol, intending to kill him, but his frenzied passion is abruptly cooled when Caesar realizes that the human has contracted the contagion and devolved to a dumb brute. This moment is poignant and stilling. The viewer pities the Colonel while simultaneously relating to Caesar’s feeling that he is now, in the end, after his long and dangerous labors, deprived of his vengeance. McCullough, now mute, motions and grunts, pleading with Caesar to pull the trigger and end his life. But Caesar puts the gun down and leaves, and later we hear a shot as the Colonel takes matters into his own hands. Perhaps this moment is a nod to the viewer that the humans, after contracting the virus and devolving, ARE somehow aware that they have devolved, and this consciousness is deeply psychologically distressing.
Overall, the film was a brooding, gripping, emotional experience, full of both action and drama, well-produced and directed, with a story that did what a movie story is supposed to do: make the audience feel. We heard what sounded like crying coming from behind us in the theater toward the end of the film.