First Things, Final Things: A review of ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’
Published: July 22nd, 2017
“War for the Planet of the Apes” picks up 15 years into the imaginative three-part chronology of a not-so-distant future.
Writers Matt Bomback and Matt Reeves (also the director) deliver a rock-steady narrative set in the once-American West, quietly evoking beloved classics like “Shane” and “The Searchers” – not to mention some works rooted in Scripture.
Grand vistas of the Rocky Mountains, the isolated beauty of deep winter in the north of California and the High Desert of the north propel the story.
The “war” of the title is concentrated early and late in the two hours, 22 minutes of running time. In between is the rare beauty of a story well told in visual media, with time for silence and character development.
From characters created by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver – producers along with Mary McLaglen, Jenno Topping, Mark Bomback, Peter Chernin, and Dylan Clark – the bizarro world of Pierre Boule (who decades ago a very different universe of Apes) has evolved beyond easy recognition.
The result is this astonishing and ultimately uplifting fable of good and evil, hope and despair.
Michael Giacchino’s musical score is his best yet – and that’s saying something. The cinematography of Michael Seresin and the astounding special computer graphics and effects, aided by the scary-good science of ‘motion-capture’ employing human actors playing the apes is the best yet.
A few brief reflections on the literary roots of this stirring trilogy.
In ancient times, Greek poet Aesop crafted fables so fine and fabulous that the heart of the tales have survived for millennia, although the full original texts were lost to time and nature. In those stories, animals faced problems like ours. They spoke, solved problems (or not) and grappled with the meaning of morality and self-governance.
As pointed out by John Horgan, a scholar of ancient times at Concordia University-Wisconsin, the roots of Aesop and his use of animals to illustrate humanity lie at the distant dawn of recorded history in Sumeria. There’s actually nothing new is using other creatures to illustrate human stories.
In Biblical times, the inspired authors of the Hebrew Scriptures laid out the origins of the Jewish people. Those narratives survived, in spite strife and division laying the basis in history for the great monotheistic religions. The Old Testament featured greatness and weakness, both corporate and personal, woven into fabrics of accountability and morality.
This trilogy (if indeed this is the end installment) is about us, with the greater and lesser apes as surrogates for humanity.
The rebooted “Planet of the Apes” has greater meaning than mere entertainment. In this grand and gratifying finale of the trio, we encounter both first things, and last things.
The hero of this story and the two predecessors is Caesar (Andy Serkis), a creature of soul and sentiment, strength and silence. A product of both nature and of experimentation, his intelligence flowing from medical tinkering with the order of things.
Caesar’s emotions and actions are focused on first things: “Home, Family, Future.” In the fantastical universe crafted by the producers and writers of this alternate reality, he is the most ethical and moral of characters – save, perhaps, for one.
That one is a mute human child (Amiah Miller) that Caesar and his three closest comrades find while searching for human soldiers who destroyed their village deep in the forests north of what once was San Francisco. She is a second-generation victim of the terrible plague that has devastated her species, yet she emerges unforgettably as a girl endowed with intuition and angelic-like powers in living the simplest moments – receiving a floral gift from a friend and returning that present in his hour of need, or distributing water and basic sustenance to the suffering innocents imprisoned unjustly.
Caesar’s fellowship discover the child while seeking to find and destroy the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), rogue commander of an Army unit searching for enemies, human and ape.
The Colonel is obsessed with what he deems final things: Legacy, conquest of enemies, a pure future for humanity – without apes and without defective humans. He is a hateful being, yet in Harrelson’s portrayal he emerges as a recognizable result of terrible times and awful choices. Filled with malevolence, he comes to understand and in ways admire the commander of his enemies, even as he remains determined to exterminate all whom he deems sub-human.
Caesar’s closest comrades are the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), the chimp Rocket (Terry Notary), and the gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). All prove themselves loyal and true, willing to sacrifice themselves for their leader and their tribe.
One distinguishing feature of this installment is the leavening of laughter – humor that is often subtle, sometimes ribald and worthy of the belly-laughs received at this writer’s viewing. The comedic elements at first center around Steve Zahn’s stellar portrayal of Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a lonely creature who has lived isolated from the larger ape community. He impacts the band of brothers simian with his example, and we see a latent hopefulfulness enter the mission-driven quartet.
A superb supporting cast, including Sara Canning as Lake, sustains the hard work of the principal performers.
A warning or two, without direct spoilers.
In the last installment, the nexus of evil was the character Koba (Toby Kebbell), whose hatred for the humans who tortured him in their research extended to an entire race. This time, Koba, who created the circumstances yielding the horrible war and the deaths of thousands still haunts the dreams of Caesar – but the bad guys are mostly human.
There are no truly sympathetic human characters other than the mute girl.
One soldier nick-named Preacher (Gabriel Chavarria) has sparks of decency, but is in thrall to the Colonel. It is difficult to see the “Alpha-Omega” military, in direct descent from the U.S. Army, craft their own version of concentration camps and force upon ape-slaves construction of a barrier we initially surmise is intended to keep apes penned. We learn slowly there are other humans destined to oppose the Colonel and his soldiers.
If the premise of apes with souls is objectionable, remember this is a fable filled with meaning for … we, the living. In six years across a trio of motion pictures, we have been given a stirring series of “blockbusters,” a chronology of fallen humanity, a morality tale for the ages.
This work meets all the positive adjectives attributed to it in reviews around the world.
Memorably, one critic has asserted that this film is Hollywood’s greatest recent Biblical epic. Another, Alyssa Wilkinson of Vox, reflected on this film days ago, writing, “what it wants to say is a warning for us, specifically, in an age where everyone from our political opponents to the world’s refugees are categorized, shoved aside, demonized, and dehumanized. The responsibility that comes with having a soul — or however you prefer to conceive of moral culpability — is to not just our own kind but our neighbor. The Apesuniverse isn’t our own, just yet.”
When I was a boy, Giovanni Montini (Pope Paul VI) reflected, “This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man and is that precious fruit which resists the wear and tear of time, which unites generations and makes them share things in admiration.”
Not one of us can control all things. We can only guide, in liberty and discernment, our own response to events.
This is an action adventure of rare integrity and power. It is a thing of beauty, admirable throughout. It comes to us at a time when despair resides at the edge of culture and the social order.
Don’t miss it.