RECAP: War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017): Matt Reeves

The world is fifteen years removed from the spread of the Simian Flu, a disease that wiped out most of the world’s human population, while adding human-level intelligence to apes, at least in the San Francisco area.

The new Planet of the Apes franchise tells the story of what transpired on Earth from normal society to an ape society. Will this movie bridge that gap?

The war between ape and Man has raged for two years. Let’s check and see how that’s going.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Caesar and his super-intelligent apes wage war against the final bastion of human military strength while seeking a new home far from humans.

Hero (8/10)

The years lie heavy on Caesar (Andy Serkis). A chastened, white-haired ape, leading his kind from subservient, caged animal to upright, organized, gun-wielding sapient ape.

For two years constant war against the final vestiges of the US Army has worn Caesar. He still seeks peace, despite the 63 dead apes from an introductory surprise attack on their forest stronghold.

Some of that white is snow; some of it is hair.

“I did not start this war,” Caesar explains to human prisoners of that battle. “I fight only to protect apes.” Many war leaders have likely believed the same (excepting the “apes” part), but Caesar walks the walk. Caesar releases the humans to show mercy. He wants the human leader to leave them alone in the woods and the killing can stop.

The apes continue to trust Caesar without reservation, but Caesar does not trust himself. “Koba still haunts us,” he says. Later, he’ll see visions of his dead compatriot, seemingly the only ape killed by another ape (since the Simian Flu). An ape killed by Caesar.

Koba’s fight with humans, covered in the previous film, was personal, and that’s exactly what it becomes for Caesar after a late night raid leaves his wife and oldest son murdered.

Caesar breaks from his apes to pursue a vendetta against the man who killed his family–Col. McCullough (Woody Harrelson), referred to as the Colonel.

Caesar and three of his trusted advisors march across beaches and over snowy mountains, gathering strength and intelligence, until they find the Colonel’s base. Inside that base Caesar discovers all his apes.

While Caesar sought the Colonel for revenge, the apes left their base to march over the Sierra Nevada toward a new desert home discovered by Caesar’s son before he was killed.

What do you do when your wandering people are enslaved by a more powerful civilization on their home turf? You become Moses.

And that’s what Caesar does. Few heroes match Moses like Caesar plot point for plot point. Are Caesar’s people captured? Yes. Are the captors hit with a plague? They are. The Simian Flu, which all surviving humans carry, has mutated, afflicting bloody noses and loss of speech.

Do some of the apes work for the humans, certain their lives will be better as an enslaved person? They do. The humans employ apes they brand “Donkey” that carry gear, load weapons, and do the human dirty work.

And does Caesar lead his people to a promised land? We’ll see.

Once again Andy Serkis excels at the human-like ape. The years have worn Caesar, and it shows in the slower, hunched gait Serkis portrays.

Eventually Caesar finds himself in front of his adversary. The Colonel wants Caesar to lead his “herd,” as he calls them, to build a protective wall. Caesar shows his heroics in standing up to the Colonel as a prisoner.

Caesar does not fear the Colonel.

Caesar endures being tied to a giant X, being whipped, and watching his apes shot to death. He demands the Colonel feed the apes for the first time since their capture, and succeeds.

Caesar inspires those below him in the pecking order, perhaps the greatest and truest mark of a heroic leader. After Caesar demands his apes, who have stopped working, be fed, the Colonel puts a gun to Caesar’s head. He counts down from five, and Caesar never blinks. One of the other apes lifts a stone, saving Caesar’s life.

The apes closest to Caesar–Maurice and Rocket–ask “What would Caesar do?” They risk their lives to free Caesar after his capture. Rocket gives himself up to aid in an escape plan.

Caesar risks his life time and again for his apes. He is a great hero, and War for the Planet of the Apes a terrific sendoff for him.

Villain (5/10)

Woody Harrelson doesn’t speak on screen for more than an hour, getting his licks in while he can.

He killed Caesar’s wife and oldest son in a daring night raid inside the apes’ compound, though he thought Caesar one of the victims, barking out “King Kong is dead,” on the radio.

Not until Caesar appears in the Colonel’s lair does the latter speak again, and he opens with lines that show his grasp of history. As Caesar blinks awake, we hear the Colonel speaking. “Grant and Lee. Wellington and Napoleon. Custer and Sitting Bull,” he says. “This is a big moment.” He’s right about their adversarial importance, but as which of the commanders does the Colonel fancy himself?

First view of the Colonel’s face

A wiser Colonel would have killed Caesar on the spot. But can you blame the guy? If you wage war against an unseen enemy for two years, you want to meet that person. If that person turns out to be a talking chimpanzee, how far would you go to meet it? “Look at your eyes,” he says to Caesar. “Almost human.”

Also, the Colonel is cool. Bald, he’s not afraid to shave his head in front of his men. The cold mountain environment doesn’t bother him, as he’s often shirtless in it. Oh, and he wears aviators at night. Doesn’t get much cooler.

Get ready for Harrelson to exposit two-thirds into the runtime, when Caesar has his inevitable meeting with the pharaoh, er, Colonel.

The apes must build a wall to stop the humans coming to kill the Colonel and take the weapons inside the fort. “They fear me,” the Colonel says. Why? “Nature has been punishing us for our arrogance,” he says, in the form of the Simian Flu that’s mutating and killing again, first robbing its victims of voice and mental clarity.

The Colonel’s son had the disease. Father made a choice, to sacrifice his son to save the human race. He drew his gun, and “I pointed it at my only child.” The Colonel killed his son. “It purified me.”

After killing one’s child, killing anyone else comes easy. He killed others with the disease. Then he killed those he would not kill those with the disease. Many people left, and they are coming back to kill the Colonel. Hence the wall he needs built with ape labor.

The Colonel’s soul might be purified, but his body ain’t, ’cause he’s boozing. He knows the end is near, if not for him then for the apes. “The only thing they fear more than me is you apes.” Ain’t that the truth.

Then comes some of my favorite lines in the series. “This is a holy war. All of human history has lead to this moment. If we do not win, it will become a planet of apes.” Has the Colonel seen the original Planet of the Apes? Only someone who had would say “planet of apes.” I don’t care; it was a great line.

That’s about all we see of the Colonel. He’s not aware of Caesar’s escape plan, and the guy ends his time in the story after he discovers he’s got the Flu 2.0. Like I said, when you kill your kid, killing anyone else is easier. The Colonel eats his own bullet.

Action/Effects (10/10)

War for the Planet of the Apes opens on a squad of soldiers sneaking through the forest. The troops approach an ape hideout, two years into their war with the apes.

Early on and you can tell the producers got a lot more money for this final installment in the franchise. Overhead tracking shots and dollies are in use as the squad halts before alerting an ape patrol.

There’s a soldier carrying a crossbow, named Preacher (Gabriel Chavarria), and he kills one of the scouts. The humans fire their weapons on an outpost made of wood perched up a hill. Grenades light up the entrenchment. Humans have the better weapons, but they are climbing a steep hill to their disadvantage.

The apes screech with fear and anger, and they sound exactly like laser shots in the Star Wars movies. I mean exactly. I thought I was watching scenes from Endor.

Some of the ape scouts escape and gallop on horseback to warn others, leaving the ape advance guard on its own. These apes have guns, but the better guns and element of surprise allow the humans the lead in the early going.

But the apes are not fools. They have their own grenades. Slow motion captures the smoking leaf balls as they fall amongst the humans. The apes also have arrows, which they fire over their wood fortification. The long arrows fall like deadly rain into the humans.

Ape archers

Now the soldiers are really hurting. Their weapons advantage is gone. Many are dying and the rest are falling back. The ape cavalry has arrived, throwing spears at their enemies. It’s a slaughter.

So opens the film. It will be the last battle the apes ever win, because the rest of the time they are running from or imprisoned by humans.

It’s a chance to laud the effects. Again the folks at WETA have upgraded their game. For War they added snow to everything. Dozens of CGI apes now require snow lightly sticking to them. Most of the environment requires snow rendered by a server.

Apes-a-riding!

Realistic snow is great, but what we need are apes we can sympathize with, and here the effects excel. WETA really nailed the eyes of these apes, not only the actual eye but the bags beneath their eyes and eye-based expressions. The apes of War are the most human-like yet seen. That’s crucial to empathizing with the creatures that help end the human race.

Sidekicks (4/8)

Caesar tries to leave his apes for a revenge mission, but his trusted associates won’t allow him. After the death of Koba, Rocket (Terry Notary) rises to Caesar’s number two. Rocket was the alpha living in San Bruno when Caesar arrived there fifteen years ago in Rise.

Rocket never questions Caesar’s leadership, and he’s smart for it. He first appears in War after he returns from an adventure with Caesar’s son. The duo have found a new home for apes, far beyond the mountains and the desert, where they believe humans will not find them.

The apes set out for that haven, but Caesar will not join them. Rocket refuses to let Caesar go alone. They are joined by the gentle giant orangutan named Maurice (Karin Konoval). Maurice refuses to use weapons, choosing to mold the minds of other apes.

Maurice and Nova

Maurice and Rocket are forced to watch when Caesar is captured by the Colonel. Rocket, in one of the most heroic gestures in the series, walks into the human camp to accept imprisonment. He does this for two reasons, 1) to save the human girl, Nova (Amiah Miller), in their care who has wandered into the fort, and 2) to help Caesar plan for the ape escape.

Maurice speaks for the first time. I didn’t think he could. He uses his words to name the silent girl “Nova,” after a metal piece from an old Chevrolet. Perhaps Maurice didn’t mean it, but it’s a dick move to use your words for the first time by speaking to a human who cannot speak.

Together, along with an ape named Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), these apes lead the escape from the fort. They dig beneath it for some time, making holes for the apes to walk to freedom.

Bad Ape is an important find, because he was not with Caesar’s initial group of saved apes. Bad Ape proves that the Simian Flu affected other apes, perhaps worldwide, as it killed humans. Bad Ape learned to speak by watching humans, and from them he also learned to fear.

Henchmen (2/8)

The Colonel leads a squadron of soldiers calling itself Alpha Omega. AO brands its members, including the apes they’ve co-opted named Donkey. I mean literally brands them.

The beginning and the end, AO follows the Colonel with terrifying intensity. Twice the troops line up below their fearless leader’s quarters, chanting slogans at him. Their voices echo. President Trump would love this treatment. He probably fancies himself a Colonel. He might even enjoy the American flag painted with AO’s emblem.

The Colonel’s backup

War is not an apt moniker for the final movie. Most of the apes spend their time imprisoned. In fact, the filmmakers got all the nouns wrong. The first movie should be titled Dawn, the second War, and the final Rise. Or different words. Whatever, they got ’em wrong.

Anyway, the apes are in jail. Caesar wanders the fort in chains, with Preacher and his crossbow following him, the same Preacher Caesar released early in the film. Preacher walks around half confused, half angry, but he delivers the near-death blow to Caesar during the climax.

Other apes follow the Colonel. The humans promise to let the apes live if they obey them for a while. Caesar knows better. So should the Donkey apes. The Colonel outright says that the only things the humans fear more than him are apes.

Stunts (2/6)

Once again the major stunt work occurs in the computers. Dozens of apes are killed in the initial invasion, plus a few humans. The ape actors again ride the horses and run with stilts on their arms to resemble ape movements, and all while wearing the gear needed for the computer junkies to render onto to them ape faces.

Climax (3/6)

We know there’s to be a big battle. The Colonel might be digging in like the fort is Helm’s Deep, but a long march of Uruk-hai will not precede the battle.

As the apes escape the fort, Bad Ape sees missiles streak into it. Fireballs light the night sky as the Colonel’s own surface-to-air missiles fire back. In the blue night sky are a dozen attack helicopters on a mission to kill. Three choppers die as rockets strike them. Foot soldiers start running toward the base. They fire rockets as well. Everyone has rockets, and they streak the air like charcoal on blue paper.

Caesar watches all this with detached interest. His mission lies in the control room. The Colonel is not answering calls in this his moment of reckoning. Caesar climbs inside and finds the truth: the Colonel is dying of the mutated Simian Flu. Caesar finds his adversary lying shirtless on a bunk grasping at an empty bottle of liquor. It’s a pathetic sight, one which Caesar will end after he kills the Colonel with his handgun.

The Colonel looks up at Caesar and rasps sounds meant to be words. He looks incredulous. Trying to choke out speech, the Colonel pulls his gun and Caesar’s hand to his head, cocking the gun. He wants Caesar to do it. The camera stays on Caesar for some time as he struggles with his hate.

Several short breaths later, Caesar relaxes his hand. He won’t give the Colonel the out he wants. He’ll have to do what he did to his son and shoot himself in the face. The Colonel takes his gun with a shaky hand (from disease or fear?), jabs the barrel in his cheek, and shoots. Caesar watches the end, escaping the room with a bunch of grenades. Caesar brings down a flaming American flag in a moment of apt symbolism.

The Colonel’s men still fight. A bazooka shell kills another helicopter. Many soldiers stand on the almost-complete wall, including a .50-cal (I think?) machine gun. The gunner shoots at the oncoming humans until he spots the apes escaping and shoots them.

Donkey, the rude gorilla, loads the guns and watches the carnage. It’s obvious to viewers that he’s going to turn against his human handlers, but will it be in time? Donkey looks behind him to see Caesar running through smoke and a hail of bullets. Caesar loosens a grenade and aims to throw it at the leaking gas tank behind the wall. His arm cocked back, Caesar is shot in the side by Preacher’s stupid crossbow bolt. Caesar fumbles the grenade like Tom Brady being sacked from the side.

Donkey about to break good.

All of this scene is in slow motion. The music is high. Donkey watches as Preacher stands above Caesar, readying a kill shot. Suddenly, Preacher explodes, sending his helmet skyward. Caesar turns to see his savior–Donkey–who has Preacher with a grenade. Donkey is immediately executed.

It’s all the time Caesar needs. He hurls that grenade and the gas tank explodes, bringing down the wall with it. But wait, there’s another fast tank. It’s leaking flames and IT explodes. That blow eradicates the entire fort, ending the (human) war.

Caesar, clutching the wound in his side, shuffles through holes and tunnels to emerge on the outside. He watches as hundreds of white-clad soldiers run and drive toward the base. A tank crunches over rubble. The humans bring out the few survivors. It is a great victory, and a cheer rings out. Few of their kind died.

Caesar, standing beside them, draws their gaze. He’s likely to be shot, until he notices the rumble in the mountain above. Snow thunders down, an avalanche to finish the human race.

The humans run away, but they are easily squelched by the snow. Caesar and his brethren leap into trees, and several tense moments pass as Caesar lunges toward the strongest tree. Apes always seek the strongest trees. Find it he does, and the apes are free to roam the desert to their promised land.

Several days later, Caesar and Maurice look over a pristine lake, an oasis after their long desert march. It will be their new home. Caesar, smiling serenely, clutches his side, where the arrow wound still troubles him. He lies down and falls asleep, forever.

Jokes (1/4)

Look out, some apes were funny. Steve Zahn brings his standard cowardly hero routine to Bad Ape, an ape constantly unwilling to be brave but easily cajoled.

Bad Ape

It ain’t much, but it’s a huge upgrade from the other two films. Perhaps the production team was wise to leave out the jokes. This is a franchise about talking apes, an inherently funny concept, that they wish to make serious. Probably best to leave out the jokes.

Nevertheless, Bad Ape is a funny scaredy-ape, and he works because of the groundwork done in the previous two films.

Setting (2/4)

The ape habitat has upgraded from timber-enclosed fort to cave society. Caesar and his apes still live in the verdant temperate rainforest. They let go their dead in a river beneath a waterfall. Caesar reserves an open cave for his family, that same waterfall serving as a pseudo wall. Frank Lloyd Wright would feel right at home.

But the apes must leave. The human army knows where it is. Most of War occurs on the road (so to speak) or in the fort prison that comprises the Colonel’s base.

Near the California border lies a former military base-turned-containment zone from early in the Simian Flu crisis. The fort sits at the foot of a mountain, and the wall the apes are forced to build protects the fort from the plains.

It’s a desolate place, but home to the humans who worship the Colonel. The light snow dusting every surface softens the place’s brutality. No matter, the place is a prison and that’s all you need to know about its homeyness.

The filmmakers left much on the table. They could have made the holding pens more decrepit and dirty, made War an ape Holocaust movie.

But could they? Apes are kind of dirty already. I didn’t see any toilet facilities in the ape haven. Concerning feces and urine, their prison and their home might have smelled the same.

In the end, Caesar leads his people to the promised land. Forty days over the Sierra Nevada (it must be forty something, to fit with the Moses analogy) lies a pretty lake surrounded by tall trees to swing on. It is paradise. And as Caesar looks upon it, he lays his head down and dies.

Commentary (0/2)

The Colonel believes that the Simian Flu and the newer variant are nature’s way of punishing humans for their arrogance. Pretty much. I believe the Bible states that the apes shall inherit the Earth.

Offensiveness (-1/-2)

Again, California is not as white as the Apes movies make them. I mean white people, not the white snowy places. The Colonel is pretty much a white supremacist neo-Nazi type. I know Woody Harrelson is bald, but his character shaves his head in the movie.

Much was made about Bad Ape wearing a blue vest, much like Black Lives Matter leader Deray Mckesson. I admit, I missed this completely. Some say the blue vest harkens back to apes wearing similar blue vests in the original series.

Yeah, but there’s no way this was a coincidence. The Apes franchise has long portrayed racist undertones and overtones, so it seems a stretch that the final movie would avoid them.

This move has a “Hey look we’re trying” vibe to it, and it doesn’t work. Better to keep the vests out of it.

Others

  • Good details in the setting: pithy sayings in the fort (“Keep your fear to yourself and show your courage”)
  • Whatever happened to that missing spacecraft from Rise?

Summary (36/68): 53%

With the best effects, best action, and best role for Caesar, War for the Planet of the Apes is my favorite in the new franchise. Caesars never more human-like, making him all the more sympathetic. Too bad the theatergoers didn’t care. War made the least of the franchise at the box office, not cracking $150 million.