I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

War for the Planet of the Apes

Director Matt Reeves, in his two sequels to the prequel to the PLANET OF THE APES series, has achieved some sort of cinematic miracle. I don’t think we as a society have properly acknowledged how incredible and unlikely these movies are. These are prebootquel-sequel-summer-event-special-effects-movies that are bleak, heavy and emotional, yet fun to watch. They feel like they’re based in the real world, yet they have us accepting apes that can speak English – not in a BABE talking-animal-movie type of way, but in a “some of them have evolved enough to learn how to do it” sort of way. Tentative, with odd rhythms, and economical use of words. It’s like a trick that they’re still mastering, putting great effort into each syllable, having to catch their breath between words. There’s still something creepy about this demonstration of intelligence from animals that are in a war with humans like us. Yet Reeves gets us to root for them – for their survival, for their moral choices.

It’s almost beside the point that somehow Reeves films a bunch of dudes in weird suits out in the woods and Weta turns them into photo-realistic animated characters. Most of the main characters and extras are computer generated, but I just think of it as live action while I’m watching it. Remember when it seemed like the Achilles heel of motion capture would always be the creepy, doll-like eyes? Well, here we have Caesar (played by the Marlon Brando of mo-cap, Andy Serkis), a performance that’s at least 25% intense stare-down. It’s as if all the soul and humanity missing from all the eyeballs in THE POLAR EXPRESS were set aside to load into his.

And how many animal characters are as complex as Caesar? The test subject ape who led the zoo primates to escape to the Redwoods in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and reject the vengeful ways of Koba in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is, like a human leader, not somebody you’re gonna agree with 100% of the time.

At the start of WAR, two years after the humans vs. apes battle looming at the end of DAWN, the humans treat Caesar like Osama bin Laden on the run, a mysterious villain they’ve heard all about but never seen with their own eyes. They trek through the woods, anti-ape catch phrases scrawled on their army helmets (one says “BEDTIME FOR BONZO,” which is an A+ racist slogan for this world, I must say). Some of them come across a hidden ape stronghold and are captured even though they brought guns to an arrow fight. They’re tied up and Caesar marches in flanked by gorilla bodyguards, looks at them, doesn’t even have to say anything. It’s very believable when one of the humans blurts out “You’re him!” You can immediately see that this ape is someone.

Like a true hero, Caesar spares the humans’ lives. His intentions for the “donkey” – the soldiers’ degrading term for the apes who willingly work as gun-loaders and equipment carriers for them – are more ambiguous. He says that these apes followed Koba, and fear what he’ll do to them, and doesn’t deny that they should. The traitor is taken separately, but escapes before they can do whatever they were gonna do to him. And though Caesar speaks of peace, a deadly attack on his kind inspires him to leave his people on a stubborn mission of revenge, only aided by a few loyal apes who insist he not go alone. He has visions of Koba (still played by Toby Kebbell of DEAD MAN’S SHOES and FANTASTIC FOUR) as he starts down a similar path of bloodthirst.

Luckily for Caesar’s soul and our entertainment, he’s accompanied by his old friend Maurice (Karin Konoval, BLACK X-MAS). That’s the wise Bornean orangutan who once signed the immortal catchphrase “Why cookie Rocket?” And Rocket (Terry Notary, also King Kong in KONG: SKULL ISLAND and head alien/movement coach in ATTACK THE BLOCK) is also there for support. These guys go way back, they did time together.

The group grows WIZARD OF OZ style as they meet two major new characters: a mute little human girl (introducing Amiah Miller) who Maurice insists on taking care of, and a balding chimp from another zoo who calls himself Bad Ape. This is a very good performance by Steve Zahn (JOY RIDE), at times providing the laughs of your usual funny Steve Zahn character, other times transcending into this unusual animal with limited speech abilities that seems unlike anything you’d think he’d be able to play.

The group’s target: Woody Harrelson (BUNRAKU) as a crazed colonel who’s definitely in that too common “you see, it’s like APOCALYPSE NOW” vein, but he might still be the most nuanced human in this series that gives all the dimension to the ones with fur. When he explains himself we can understand his motives, wrong-headed as they may be. And I think many of the grunt characters are sympathetic, or at least understandable. They seem like scared people stuck in a bad situation. On the other hand, the way they treat not only the ape prisoners but even their ape comrades – pushing their heads down to establish dominance, for example – makes us root to see them get blown the fuck up.

Which many of them do when they find themselves looking down a barrel of monkeys. Sorry, that’s offensive. Our ape heroes discover (SPOILER) the Colonel’s P.O.W. camp where he’s forcing apes to build a wall! Caesar deduces what it’s all about, but also becomes a prisoner, isolated in his own cage. It’s UNDISPUTED II! Well, I guess not really. More like an acknowledgement that the zoo escape was the best part of RISE. When they start using the APES TOGETHER STRONG signal I got goosebumps. It’s like if Obama turned completely disillusioned and dejected and a crowd started going come on man, “Yes we can! Yes we can!”, trying to inspire him with his own inspirational quote.

One thing I didn’t expect is that they start setting up the situation in the original 1968 PLANET OF THE APES where humans don’t talk. Some viewers seem to accept the Colonel’s description of the virus turning humans primitive, but I think he’s an unreliable narrator. Nova (as they name the little girl) and her dad don’t seem primitive, and we never see anybody who does. In PLANET Taylor rocks the ape world by speaking and proving that humans are intelligent. Don’t make the same assumptions as the bourgeoisie apes of 1968.

 

Reeves originally established himself as a writer. Of course he will always be most famous for co-writing UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY with Richard Hatem and co-creating that tv show called Felicity or whatever with J.J. Abrams which I have heard is pretty highly regarded if I’m not confusing it with something else but I think it’s that one, Felicity. This (like DAWN) he co-wrote with Mark Bomback (LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD). But damned if he hasn’t turned out to be a topnotch director who combines high level technical wizardry with great acting performances (via technology!), slick visual storytelling, and (oh shit…) ideas. Like, despite movie tradition, Reeves is smart enough to structure it so that the showdown with the “Big Bad” Colonel happens before the climax. Once that’s done with we still have to deal with the much more interesting side story of a “donkey” named Red (Ty Olsson, CHAOS [the Statham one]) who we have seen struggling with the side he chose.

I enjoyed Reeves’ feature directational debut CLOVERFIELD, but LET ME IN convinced me he was more than we’d bargained for. Though I can understand people turning their nose up to it as an unnecessary remake of a beloved recent film, I think it’s a great piece of filmmaking. And then DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES ran with what others had created in RISE and made a much stronger, more unique film that I think didn’t get enough credit. And WAR is on the same level.

It’s funny, when Ben Affleck dropped out of directing THE BATMAN, I wondered if there were any directors I thought would do a good Batman movie, and Reeves was who I came up with. Then, weirdly, he ended up getting hired. (See THE SECRET.) Hopefully one day he’ll turn his attention to material of his own creation, but for now he’s one of the best there is at that modern Hollywood skill of crafting great films with existing characters and worlds.

He might be done with the APES, because this does seem like it would work as a final chapter. I don’t really want to see them get up to the time period of the original movie, which I thought was not too far off judging by this girl being named Nova. But Bomback told Inverse that that’s not the case:

“She’s not supposed to be the character from the ‘68 film, but here we see how that name gets introduced into the universe of these movies. And…hundreds of years later, someone else is going to wind up being named Nova.”

The generational nature of the original APES series makes me want to see what will happen when Caesar’s son – who is not the same Cornelius – grows up. I mean, let’s get these apes wearing weird futuristic clothes and shit, am I right?

No, I don’t think I am right. But I love these movies.

P.S. There was a well-circulated accusation on Twitter that WAR does not contain any speaking parts for women. That’s only true if you discount three female characters for communicating with sign language rather than speech, so it’s kind of offensive. But the point being made – that this series doesn’t have strong female characters, or even many females at all – is unfortunately very true. It’s especially weird that they have Judy Greer as Cornelia in DAWN and WAR and give her so little to do (even if she took it as a cameo just to be in an APES movie). Think of what a crucial character Zira is in the original APES series. She’s kind of the lead! If they end up making more they better straighten that shit out.

I also want to mention that I read that tweet right before seeing the movie, and it distracted me a little while watching it, and it kind of annoyed me. I could say that it’s because of its exaggeration or because of the strident way it dismisses a powerful work of art for not conforming to an ideological checklist. But if I’m honest at least part of it is because I like this movie, and it feels like I’m being told I’m a bad person for that, or not living up to the values I perceive myself as having. It feels bad and I think that feeling leads to alot of dumb conflicts.

A couple days later I realized that deep down there was a feeling that it’s an inconvenience to me to be told I have to think about this movie in a different way. I’d rather be able to enjoy it for what it is, unencumbered. But I shouldn’t worry about that because it’s okay to be challenged. Important, in fact.

I was taking it personally when I shouldn’t have. I know what I believe in and that I can respect this movie as a work of art while agreeing that there’s no reason for it to be as male dominated as it is. So I need to check myself before I wreck myself, I’m starting with the man in the mirror, make that change, etc. Now more than ever those of us who care about this stuff need to stop fighting over small things when we agree on the big ones.

In other words, APES. TOGETHER. STRONG.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
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25 Responses to “War for the Planet of the Apes”

  1. Okay. I agree that these movies are a weird minor miracle. If someone went in and pitched one without there being any sort of pre-existing IP — “It’s a movie about talking apes, they’re at war with the humans, and we’re rooting for the apes. Oh, and it’ll cost 300 million to shoot” — they would be kicked out on their ass. But since a studio had the IP and they wanted to do something with it, it flowered into this. Sometimes Hollywood’s dependence on pre-existing properties can be used for good, I guess.

    re: lack of female representation – yes, this is not a good movie for *speaking parts* for female characters (I did find it interesting that Nova plays a critical role by doing a critical thing at a critical juncture, and her actions are based on love & caring, not hate or anger or any of the other stuff that motivates the male characters). But it is a good movie at what it wants to be, which is a character study of a male leader. So, whatever. Acknowledging that the movie can be criticized from one point of view doesn’t have to be the same thing as saying it’s not good. It is. I liked it.

  2. As much as I love the original series from the ’60s, these new ones haven’t fully grabbed me. RISE I thought was okay but felt adding in a science gone wrong plotline undermined the themes and DAWN is a much better movie but I still didn’t love it even though I thought I would/should. As a result I have not seen WAR yet but will soon, I hope this is the one that makes me love these new APES movies and my friends/co-workers can stop calling me hipster for trumpeting that all five of the ’60s movies are still better.

  3. Yeah I also don’t really think these things are all that and I feel kinda bad about it cause I do like the APES movies for the most part. Even the Tim Burton one had it’s moments.

    I mean they aren’t soulless and easily could’ve been. They also are filled with competent filmatism. RISE for example had some very earnest stuff in it. Maybe it’s my dislike for James Franco that kept distracting me but that movie really did not sweep me off my feet like it did everyone else. DAWN went down a bit better with me but not by much. A lot of nonsensical developments in that one.

    I guess it’s also that mo cap aside they don’t really feel like they’re threading any new ground. Certainly nothing that hadn’t been covered by the originals but I can’t really get mad at that. After all what is PLANET OF THE APES without it’s universal social commentary which since things always go in circles is never irrelevant no matter WHEN you make a series of APES movies.

    Still so many people act like they’re pillars of groundbreaking cinema that it could be kind of off putting. With that said this will be my first APES in theaters since 2001 and I look forward to seeing it. Especially because it seemed to have nicely wrapped up a decent little trilogy pretty unapologetically from what I hear from people and from what I gather from Vern’s review. We don’t get much of that often these days with franchise filmmaking. Hell we don’t seem to get trilogies anymore at all.

  4. George Sanderson

    July 20th, 2017 at 1:32 pm

    I’m going to be honest and say that I won’t read your review until I actually see the film (which could take a while given my current circumstances). I did skip to the end though to see if you liked it and I’m so happy to see you did.
    I saw the second one of this particular series in Oslo. The film was dubbed in Norwegian without any subtitles. Despite this, my wife and I were able to follow the plot and action pretty darn closely and it stands as one of my favourite movie going experiences. Also, before the film started an usher came in to the theatre, ft everyone’s attention, and went over the rules of the cinema. It was incredible because everyone sat quietly and listened and stayed quiet for the rest of the film.

  5. Vern, this is a great review. I love watching your evolution as a writer, and this is as fine as it gets. I also love your vulnerability there in the post-script. I have not seen any of these movies for some reason, but I will rectify that.

  6. I still think RISE is almost total garbage except for the big monkeys-on-horseback climax. Luckily, DAWN was was basically MONKEYS ON HORSEBACK: THE MOVIE so it was got the “Most Improved” medal for that summer movie season. I’ll see this one eventually but I don’t think I need another movie right now where it’s clear that the world would be a better place with no humans in it. Feels a little too close to the truth.

  7. I realize it’s meant as a joke, but I actually do want to see the apes in weird futuristic clothes in the far future running a crazy upside-down hubrisical society which is returning to the mistakes of the past in an attempt to avoid them. I’ve enjoyed the first two APES reboots as their own thing, but a part of me does miss the metaphorical sci-fi strangeness of the original movies. I feel like we’ve eaten our vegetables now with these three gloomy allegories about how societies splinter and turn on each other; let’s get some Dr. Zaius and underground nuclear mutants in the next one.

  8. Mr. S: Plus if the Apes go far-future and high-tech that brings it back to original novel (same author as BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI(!) because in there the Apes were technologically-advanced (the ’60’s cartoon show had the Apes use futuristic gadgets so it’s been touched upon in adaptations).

  9. I thoroughly enjoyed Rise and Dawn, but would agree they don’t exactly capture my imagination as much as the original Apes series continues to do. Even with the handicap of being relegated to B productions by the studio (and hampered by increasingly smaller budgets and support), there’s no denying the charm and inventiveness of those first 5 movies.

    Having said that, War is the first installment of this rebooted series that I would rank among my favorite Apes entries. *very minor spoiler* I particularly love the fact that it ends up being more of a western than the title would suggest, and that the titular war in question turns out to be more about the battle for Caesar’s soul than anything else. *end spoiler* In fact, it’s such a measured, rewarding film that tonally it’s close to what I imagine a sequel to the original Planet of the Apes might have been like had the studio had more conviction in the merits of a sequel.

    (Oh, and count me among those that would genuinely love to see this series move into the realm of apes driving cars and wearing suits. Not only for the nostalgia factor of evoking the original franchise but also to have a more faithful adaptation of the modern society of apes depicted in Pierre Boulle’s novel.)

  10. geoffrey — didn’t know that, very interesting. Even the Burton version doesn’t touch on that (unless you count the hilarious ending). All the more reason for the new Apes film to go full VALERIAN!

  11. TomCruiseNeverPhonesItInAGame

    July 20th, 2017 at 5:55 pm

    Love this this movie, what a series. Bad ape!

  12. TomCruiseNeverPhonesItInAGame

    July 20th, 2017 at 6:02 pm

    The accusation on twitter is silly, a movie doesn’t need a female speaking part to be a good movie. (I could mention here that there were few actual speaking parts in this film…) Indeed, it should be about what works best for the movie, not quotas.

  13. Minor Spoiler: Anyone else expect the army from the North to be revealed as Apes? I noticed that they were all wearing masks and full-body suits, without so much as a human hand glimpsed. It would have been tonally daft, but thematically intriguing.

  14. TomCruiseNeverPhonesItInAGame

    July 20th, 2017 at 6:03 pm

    I actually thought the army from the North might be an early version of the mutants from Beneath, notice how they all turn at around the same time.

  15. Really appreciate your postscript, Vern — particularly your willingness to avoid the conclusion “This movie isn’t about women, so the people pointing out how there could/should have been more women in it are wrong, because I feel guilty when I think about how something I like could have been even better if it hadn’t alienated people who aren’t me.” Like, had Rocket been replaced by Lake in the posse, the movie would have been, at worst, no different, and probably at least a little more interesting than it was. Or they just could have added Lake to the posse and kept Rocket there, if there’s actually people out there who care about Rocket and remember what he did in the other ones. Extra points could have been scored by then keeping Nova’s parental duties restricted to the orangutan and gorilla, leaving Lake free to do some other, more tactical shit! I’d have loved watching that movie. Guess they can save those ideas for “Return To The Planet Of The Apes” or whatever they decide call the next one.

    I gotta add, though, that this movie had a much bigger bummer at its core for me than the lack of female characters: at the end of the day, it reminds me a lot of Zack Snyder’s “Dawn Of The Dead” in the way it does a very good job imitating the appearance of sociopolitical subtext, but still comes up almost totally empty in that department. Like, the subtext is essentially built into the premise, so much so that you would have to try really hard to excise 100% of it, but both this and Dawn have the feeling of “a team of people went over this script with a fine tooth comb, being really careful to make sure both sides of the aisle could happily pay to watch it and walk out of the theater thinking about not much more than dinner and which preview looked the best.” I’m not saying I needed it to have fuckin Trump Ape for me to enjoy it — I imagine the amount of CGI in this means it probably wrapped before the election even occurred — but it’s discouraging to see this series, one whose decades-long brand recognition is entirely due to the original’s bold engagement with the issues of its day, turn into a product whose bottom line would be at risk if its story included even moderately challenging ideas.

  16. TomCruiseNeverPhonesItInAGame

    July 20th, 2017 at 7:37 pm

    There are a lot of challenging ideas in this film, ideas I was impressed to see included in a summer multiplex film. But being the latest movie to make Trump criticism wouldn’t have been challenging, it would have been just about the laziest thing they could have done.

  17. TomCruise — yeah I completely agree that Trump-specific criticism would have felt lame and on the nose…. I’m genuinely curious and stuff in movies frequently goes over my head, would be interested to know what you found to be a politically challenging idea in this one.

  18. These films have all been solid. But, do you not think, Vern, that they use the same tactics to get us on the side of the tribal, anti-modern societal humans, like in films such as Avatar, Last Samurai or even Apocalypto? It’s hardly a new premise to paint the human race as bastards when we’re bearing down on smaller, lesser groups (even though in the Apes film it’s actually Us who are in the shit).

  19. Movie Bastard – I agree that it’s similar, but I think it takes it further because they try to make these animals as realistic as possible and don’t fully anthropomorphize them the way standard talking animal movies do. They build off the truth of some apes being taught to sign and go a little further.

    But you’re right, the power of cinema is to put you in the perspective of characters who are not like you.

  20. I really love these films. I’ve seen the previous two entries a couple of times each, and they both basically hold up (Dawn more than Rises). They’re a lot smarter than they have any right to be, and they show how to make a proper remake: explore similar ideas without going over the exact same narrative territory. Reeves won me over as a director after Dawn, which surprised me because I hated Cloverfield. He seems to have absolute control of that film.

    I haven’t seen War yet because my daughter was born a couple of weeks early, so I’ll probably wait until video. But I’m glad Vern liked what might be the end of the trilogy.

  21. Geez RBatty, not going to see a movie just because of your newly-born daughter… sounds like you’re not a REAL fan!

  22. TomCruiseNeverPhonesItInAGame

    July 21st, 2017 at 7:48 pm

    Hits, thanks for the reply, I’ll share what I found challenging shortly.

  23. I know Geoffrey. And she arrived in time to keep me from theaters during what looks like a killer couple of weeks for movies: Spiderman, Apes, Dunkirk, Valerian, and Atomic Blonde.

    No, but, seriously, being a father is humbling and awe inspiring. I’ll just have to vicariously live out the theater going experience through this website.

  24. On a serious note, congratulations. Thought I was going be a father by now and came close to being a kinda-fake-father a year or so back and that didn’t pan out and it still gets me bummed out. Especially when people say they just had a kid and are happy!

    But no seriously, congratulations. Enjoy your time, movies can wait. Being there for your child cannot.

  25. Well here’s an oddity, a series that gets better as it goes along. This one takes the improvements of DAWN and increases the quality by quite a bit. Seems they played it safe in one area as the thing holding DAWN back from greatness was the bland human cast. Thus they wisely make a almost Apes-only movie. Really helped make it unique and stand out, so kudos to director Reeves and studio Fox for allowing him to even make it this way. Kinda wish Harrelson’s character had a bit more depth but that’s a minor borderline nitpicky complaint.

    I’m staying out of the female role debate for this one. Though I do have a personal philosophical quandary though. Upon leaving the movie my father called me coincidentally raving about it. I do not like my father and only talking to him so I can ‘be the better man’ and not hold grudges (I didn’t speak to him for almost 15 years (he’s not a good man). So I’m throwing him a bone by speaking to him and he’s telling me how much he loves the new APES and then almost immediately segways into how much he loves Trump and thinks Fox News is objective. This is followed by an incredibly Islamaphobic rant about how ALL Muslims are murdering machines and Dems want them to come in destroy America. I excused myself from the phone call and was left wondering how can you watch WAR three times and still come away with the message that fear, hate, prejudice, and violence is the way to peace and safety? How can you not see the correlation with real life?

    Sorry for have two sappy, pour my heart comments in a row on this thread!

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