I kept experiencing a kind of cognitive dissonance while watching War for the Planet of the Apes, the last film in the rebooted trilogy. I was asking myself: What is the ultimate argument the trilogy is trying to make? And who is it making this argument to?
The film tells a familiar story as the series reaches its logical conclusion. Human superiority has begun to fade and as it’s on its way out, the apes, led by Andy Serkis’ Caesar, are trying to escape from the human world. That human world is marked by chaos and a sort of dystopic hollowness. Escape from it comes in the form of a deserted land beyond the woods that offers a mystical promise. In the film’s prologue, as the apes first set out for this land, it sounds like a promised land. This is not incidental, for the journey to this land represents The Promised Land. Biblical overtones are distinct – Caesar is Moses, and he is leading his terrorised Israelites from the evil Pharaoh.
The Pharaoh in this iteration is Woody Harrelson’s sadistic general. The role offers little nuance but Harrelson acquits himself well, playing a figure of terror who elicits comparisons to Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz. This is not incidental. For War for the Planet of the Apes does not just implicitly recall Coppola’s film but explicitly invokes. In one scene, the phrase “Ape-ocalypse Now” is scribed on a wall. The wall is that of a border facility, where the apes are jailed and used as slaves to build defence for their captors. As the humans, inside and outside the wall, gear for up for battle with each other, with the apes caught in between, Caesar and company plot their escape from the facility, like a Simian version of The Great Escape.
To be fair, to director Matt Reeves and company, the film’s awareness of its influences is not as flippant as that sounds. War for the Planet of the Apes is aware of its filmic history but never derivative. In fact, immediately, the film brandishes its technical excellence. It is gorgeous. Visual effects have improved since the first instalment six years ago, the motion capture is even more efficient, and the world building is sharper and more distinct. This film looks beautiful, and it sounds even better. I’m already willing to start a campaign for the film’s sound effects editing, which superbly transmutes the desolation, the trauma and the confusion of war. And yet… and yet… and yet, I kept thinking–what’s more to be said about war? As I watched, I kept on asking myself–what exactly does War for the Planet of the Apes have to say? Yes, it looks good, and it sounds better and there’s not a second while I was watching it that I was compelled to look away. Yet, there was the nagging feeling as it kept playing: Okay. So what? Will I remember this in a month’s time?
When the original Planet of the Apes premiered in the sixties, as a novel, its thesis was clear. Its invocation of horror, where neither the humans nor apes were the heroes, was provocative and titillating in a way that was particularly significant in light of the Cold War-era. Like much dystopian fiction, the original French novel offered a metaphor for our own impermanence and futility. I love a good metaphor. Metaphors are codes we use to understand things better, but sometimes I grow tired of the value of metaphors. War for the Planet of Apes, like many films of its ilk, is obsessed with the idea of humanity as untenable. The human world cannot succeed, the rot has taken force and wrought destruction. The future is beyond human. But if the argument is that humanity is replaced with apes acting as humans, what’s the value? If the battle between ape and man is meant to be emblematic of racism, why not have the actual text be that than doing it through metaphor? But, still, I kept thinking, it is a really good metaphor!
It’s why I kept feeling that sort of push and pull, that dissonance as to how I felt about this one. The film leans, too often, on its music, which is because of its lack of dialogue, it gives the film a unique mark – forcing it to tell its story in mostly elegiac photography and resounding music. It provides the film with a distinct stylistic élan, which is remarkable on a technical level. The focussed nature of its vision is impressive but as the film marches, the slightness of its story moves from deliberate precision to repetitiveness. When the final shot of the film comes–a scene that occurs because of a deus-ex-machina moment that seems anticlimactic, and yet unavoidable–the credits roll and nothing feels unearned or insufficient. The ending we receive is exactly the one the film seems to be leading up to. There can be no argument that Reeves has not done right by his film, and yet the dissonance lives on.
I feel bad about such a response to such a meticulously created film. But War for the Planet of the Apes is a difficult film to feel excited about. All mute colours and dour moods. The war has wreaked its havoc and what remains is an audience overly inundated with gloom; it’s difficult to muster up the energy to cheer for it.
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