Is there anything more perfectly, absurdly cinematic than an ape riding on horseback through the snow?
“If man evolved from a monkey then why are there still monkey?” Reportedly a favoured argument of creationists, the answer to this question is relatively simple in layman’s terms: we went one way; they went another.
War for the Planet of the Apes opts to go every way imaginable rather than forgo any creative possibilities as a study of how our simian brethren might one day displace us on the evolutionary high road.1
To take the franchise back to its protozoic stage, 1968’s original Planet of the Apes led on to 1970’s Beneath (the Planet of the Apes), which led on 1971’s Escape from, which bespake ‘72’s Conquest of, which the next year gave way to Battle for. Ignoring Tim Burton’s dead-ending 2001 reboot, it would be almost forty years before the first Apes prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes bought back the human-simian power struggle back to the big screen. It introduced us to the character of Caesar (mo-cap supremo Andy Serkis), a chimpanzee who, due to genetic modification, has greatly increased intelligence.
Three years later, in 2014, came Dawn, where mutual fear escalated into open conflict first broke out between evolved ape-kind and the survivors of the same virus, devastating to humans, that gifted them their abilities. War begins, like its immediate predecessor, as a war movie.
The film opens on a platoon of soldiers wearing helmets adorned with slogans like “Monkey Killer” or “Bedtime for Bonzo” trekking through verdant Pacific woods; their feet squelching in the mud. Launching a surprise attack against a troop of apes2, they are quickly overcome; though at substantial cost to ape life. Rather than execute his military prisoners – which include traitor apes known as “Donkeys” – Caesar sends them back to their mysterious Colonel with a message: give the woods to the apes and there will be peace.
The second monkey war movie this year to pay homage to Vietnam movies, War is not necessarily more subtle in this than Kong: Skull Island,[A big, daft, napalm-lit, Aviator-wearing hulk of entertainment.[/note] but it aims for something close to a profound reflection on humanity and its sins. It seems that Caesar, twelve years on from the decimation of mankind, has truly grown into a calm and noble elder statesman, a hoarfrosted authority to his people; living peaceably, when possible, amid the mountains of Muir Woods, California.
Then an unforgivable tragedy takes place.
Speaking, not quite, of Unforgiven, it’s then that War dramatically shifts gears. As an enraged Caesar sets out to wreak his vengeance on the Colonel (Woody Harrelson),3 it becomes instead a classic revenge Western. In this Caesar is unexpectedly, if not unpredictably, accompanied by three friends – benevolent orangutan Maurice 4 (Kevin Konoval), battle-scarred Rocket (Terry Notary, who mo-capped the big guy in Kong: Skull Island)[/note], and gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite).
Along the way, they are joined by Bad Ape (Steven Zahn), a crazy hermit type and the film’s comic relief, and Nova (Amiah Miller), a young, blonde-haired, blue-eyed naïf whose muteness, more than just a tug of the heartstrings, foreshadows a major development in the Apes universe. Not content to settle for Full Metal Django, Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback’s script is packed with shifts in genre in service of ever-increasing thematic ambition.5
When Caesar comes across a number of apes crucified in the snow, War then takes another more gradual shift.6Before too long, we’re ensconced in not only a prisoner-of-war film7, but a bonafide Biblical epic.8 The film even manages to keep a consistent tone, despite seeming at points almost like a pastiche.9 The synthesis is not utterly seamless, but this is nevertheless bold, ambitious film-making. It’s
Harrelson is quietly effective as the film’s title-dropping,10 Kurtz-with-a-God-complex – he literally talks of having sacrificed his only son for the good of humanity – but he occasionally slips into a Brando impersonation11 Serkis, meanwhile, perfectly embodies the rage and confusion of a monkey Moses struggling to lead his people to freedom and the promised land. It may be derivative, but it’s also strangely effective: pure cinematic fodder for those who get the references (they are near impossible to miss); simply a superbly-made blockbuster for those who do not.
The film just about lands the smaller emotions, too. Michael Giacchino’s magnificently varied score – his second this summer off the back of Spider-Man: Homecoming – perfectly embodies this approach. For instant, there’s the warning metallic rattle that strikes up whenever Caesar and the Colonel make eye contact; destined as they seem to be to eventually go mano-e-monkey. From the tribal drums of the opening Fox theme to the twinkly glockenspiel of “Apes Together Strong”, it’s moving when big and bold; touching when underplayed.
It’s easy, too, to forget the technical triumph, the CGI simian cast are never less than fully convincing in details both large and small; from the way they ride a galloping horse to the way water beads in their fur. The rich, digital palette of cinematographer Michael Seresin draws out both the beauty and the texture of the natural environments – trees, snows – and the ugliness of the artificial ones; all grey concrete and stark metal.
After Rules Don’t Apply, War for the Planet of the Apes is a strong contender for strangest film of the year12. I for one can’t wait to see what Matt Reeves does next.13It’s supposedly the DCEU’s first standalone Batman movie, imaginatively titled The Batman – A Batman? No, the Batman – which will at least see him team-up with Ben Affleck, star of the film that one last year’s award for movie-that-is-mad-as-arseholes: The Accountant, which I described as Batman meets Rain Man and which, I’m delighted to say, is getting a sequel.14
In any case, not bad for a bunch of damn dirty apes.
- Save for – SPOILER – the nuclear annihilation of mankind. If this whole shebang doesn’t climax with a shot of a chimpanzee riding a nuke like Colonel Kong in Doctor Strangelove then cinema is essentially dead as an art-form. If the series follows on from the trend set by War, though, it might well end up doing just that
- Which is, believe it or not, the collective noun for apes
- He says it will provide a distraction for the rest of the colony to escape, but we know what’s in his heart.
- Whose brown, marble eyes gleam with such mischievous life
- Which is good because, between me and the rest of the Internet I think we’ve pretty much exhausted all the ape puns for which the English language allows.
- Crucifixion are not unknown in this genre: Sergio Corbucci, the other, less-appreciated maestro of the Spaghetti Western genre – whose Great Silence is arguably the archetypal snowy Western (sorry McCabe & Mrs. Miller) – included one in Compañeros. It’s either that or Andrei Rublev, which would be weird even for this film.
- Just call it The Great EscAPE – pun not mine.
- I expected War for the Planet of the Apes to remind me of a Charlton Heston movie. I did not expect that movie to be The Ten Commandments.
- “Ape-pocalypse Now” is literally scrawled on a tunnel wall.
- “It will be a… world of monkeys? Ah, shit, that doesn’t work. Let me go again.”
- You want to tell him to stop, that he’s already giving a fully-fledged performance.
- It beats out Okja – review pending – simply because Bong Joon-ho’s film is so evidently attempting to be so