Peter Malone, Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, and Amiah Miller. Directed by Matt Reeves. Rated M (Mature themes and violence). 140 min.
This American science fiction film is a sequel to ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ (2014), and is third in a series that began with ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ (2011). The last two instalments are directed by the same Director, Matt Reeves, and Andy Serkis stars in all three films.
Andy Serkis plays Caesar, the intelligent leader of a tribe of genetically enhanced apes, and king of the ape colony. It is 15 years after a ‘simian flu’ has wiped out most of the humans on earth and enhanced the brain power of apes who wanted to establish a peaceful existence. Two years onwards after the events of the last film, the military comes to kill Caesar, but the assassination attempt fails. In this movie, Caesar’s fortified forest encampment is raided by a human commando team, led by Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), who is a tormented psychopath. The fighting that ensues is vicious and brutal, and some apes have crossed sides to collaborate with the humans. A new character, ‘Bad Ape’ (Steve Zahn), is introduced in the film to brighten things up, and his clumsy awkwardness projects light comedy into grim events, but the film is a dark one.
In the ensuing battle, Caesar loses his wife and son, and the movie shows a conflicted Caesar setting out with a small band of loyal followers to revenge his loss. Caesar’s treks through the mountains, searching for the Colonel, and his group picks up a mute human girl (Amiah Miller) along the way. She joins the group, and teaches Caesar and his followers the meaning of human empathy. Caesar eventually tracks the Colonel to a concentration camp-site in which hundreds of apes are locked in cages, and his mission becomes one ‘to set them free’.
The film strongly emphasises character. The word ‘War’ in the film’s title doesn’t signify a final reckoning; rather, it signifies a battle for the soul of Caesar, whose character dominates the movie. Caesar experiences fierce conflict between his desire for revenge and his wanting to be a worthy leader. Scripting for the film is good, the photographic process responsible for the performances of the apes is amazingly effective, the battle scenes are intense, and Serkis’ performance stands out.
The movie is about conflict between apes and humans that has continued in some form across all three films. What is distinctive about this film is the enormous increase in sophistication that has occurred in the technology that lies behind motion-performance-capture, the special photographic process used in the movie. It gives an astounding degree of realism to Caesar and his followers, and the visual effects in the movie are exceptional.
The film causes the viewer to reflect thoughtfully on values and morals that are accepted as human. But in this film, the humans behave animal-like, while the apes behave not like animals at all. Apes behave as humans should. The film is a personal survival journey towards goodness for Caesar, and biblical relevance is suggested by Apes leading the oppressed (the caged ape prisoners) to the Promised Land. What the film pointedly projects is the possibility that life in the future is headed to be a world with no humanity at all. Humankind has become too dark to recover, and the original virus is mutating and will soon exterminate it. Hope, virtue and survival now rest paradoxically with another species.
The film contrasts goodness among apes with evil among humans in ways that challenge the viewer with its implied ‘final’ message: if Humans go to war and attack each other, and cannot behave with forgiveness and mercy and show compassion to others, Apes will take over by showing the way. Such a message strongly hints that we have seen the final instalment in a three-part series, and this film stands as the best of the three.
Peter W. Sheehan is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.