War for the Planet of the Apes, the final segment of the trilogy centered around Caesar (Andy Serkis), is an amalgam of classic 60’s and 70’s cinema with religious connotations. These ingredients are given new life through the phenomenal work of Serkis and Weta Digital, who have combined to create a stunning planet that is more ape than human—in more than screen time.
In this installment, Caesar and his apes are looking for a new home, one that is far from humanity. Nevertheless, they are chased by The Colonel—played by a psychopathic Woody Harrelson—and his small gorilla-killing army. The scenes that involve the Colonel play like moments from Apocalypse Now. Throughout the film, there are several references from “Ape-calypse Now” scrawled across tunnel walls, to Harrelson’s appearance. He’s either frequently shaving his head with a knife, or in orange colored low-key lighting, or even adopting Brando’s slight nasally accented speech. I couldn’t tell which homage was more blatant, the obvious pun that took five seconds to think up or the I’ve taken a couple method courses and now I’m doing my best Brando routine.
The classic cinema references don’t stop there, especially when the apes (after being captured by the Colonel) stage a Great Escape-type breakout. The breakout scene might also bear greater resemblance to Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, but let’s not dwell on dueling prison breaks.
There is also religious iconography throughout the film. There are multiple images of apes being plastered to makeshift crosses, even Caesar is stapled to a cross. I don’t know if Matt Reeves was shooting for (pun alert) irony by putting an ape named Caesar on a cross, but there’s probably been no greater piece of religious irony since that guy who everyone thought was high talked to a burning bush. Still, as Caesar searches for a homeland for his ape-community (I honestly don’t know how to refer to them, so I’m just going to keep making it up as I go along), there are moments when it’s difficult not to associate him with Moses trying to lead his people through the desert.
Nevertheless, War for the Planet of the Apes is centered on Caesar trying to balance what it means to forgive. Forgiveness in this sense, is the ultimate form of humanity. In order for Caesar to consciously forgive—in a way—he must become human. In this case, he has to cease to hate the Colonel who has killed his wife and son. While Caesar searches for his humanity, the humans have become worried that they’re losing theirs. The same virus that nearly caused a mass extinction has now mutated, and has caused humans to lose their ability to speak. The one tool that has separated man (sorry for the dated gender assumption) from ape, is the human tongue. In this installment, that tool is being wiped away.
However, that loss does not mean the end of humanity. As Caesar and his band of apes (I’m still making this up) hunt for the Colonel, they come across Nova (Amiah Miller). A girl who’s unable to speak, but cares for the apes who have killed her father (Yea, I didn’t buy that either). Nova represents a new relationship between human and ape, and a new type of human. Though she has lost her ability to speak, she’s still able to use sign language. Another weak part of the film is the fact that Nova learns sign language in a few short days.
There are multiple threads running throughout War for the Planet of the Apes, and for the most part, they do come together. Serkis is once again a mastermind at bringing composite digital renderings to life. What at first seemed like a gimmick, has given Serkis multiple chances to prove what we all should have known, that he was and is a fantastic actor. His showdowns with Harrelson, mostly done through the use of dirty shots (The film could be renamed Planet of the Apes: Dirty Shots because there are so many, but I’m pretty sure the rating would go up slightly with that title) are the highest moments of the film. At a run time of 140 minutes, and for a film that is more mystery than action, the pacing is very good.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a stunningly beautiful film in the way that it creates a world that is so close to ours. One of the talents of the franchise, stretching back to the 60’s, has been its ability to pull together the wreckage of human civilization—abandoned buildings and desolate sea shores—to be the mise-en-scene of the apes’ world. If you’re a fan of the trilogy then this is a satisfying ending, making this trilogy one of the more underrated. Nevertheless, if you’ve never seen a Planet of the Apes movie, you can still stroll into this one and enjoy. In the meantime, you might want to try not to tap on the glass….
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Photo credit: Slash film