Movie Review: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
War. What is it good for?
This is another summer 2017 movie that got gangbuster reviews and made me go, “Eh.” (Cf., “Wonder Woman,” “Baby Driver.”) I understand the accolades. “War for the Planet” is an unconventional action-adventure movie—meaning there’s not much adventure and little action. There’s mystery, which is a positive. It’s artistic. There are homages to great movies in the past—particularly “Apocalypse Now.” It prefigures, or anticipates, the previous “Apes” series by naming a mute girl Nova and a baby ape Cornelius, and giving us those creepy, x-like crosses Charlton Heston sees at the edge of the Forbidden Zone in the original ’68 movie.
Wait, does that mean we’re just a few years away from those events? That the little blonde Amiah Miller will grow up to be the smoking hot brunette Linda Harrison? That Cornelius will become Roddy McDowell, and our current wandering, idyllic ape society will build a small adobe village while its various species quickly stratify into scientists (chimps), lawyers (orangutans), and soldiers (gorillas)?
Seems a tad early. The original “Apes” was set hundreds of years in the future (3978 to be precise), and we caused it with our nukes (“You blew it up! Damn you all to hell!” etc.). But I guess we should allow writer-director Matt Reeves a little artistic license. Each “Apes” planet, after all, should be caused by whatever we currently fear: in the 1960s, nuclear war; in the 2010s, James Franco.
Fear of an ape planet
Speaking of fear: Should I get into the potential covert racism of the series? How the novella was written in France during the Algerian situation, and how the first series was popular during the Black Power movement, and how this series came about during the Obama years? The difference between this series and the original, of course, is who we’re rooting for. Charlton Heston, he dead. Indeed, it’s tough to find a starker casting difference between NRA president Heston playing the hero in ’68 and legal marijuana advocate Woody Harrelson playing the villain today. Woody does it with a touch of Col. Kurtz (shaving his bald head), while his face-to-face with Caesar (Andy Serkis) contains a coda like a Trumpian tweet:
You are impressive. Smart as hell. You’re stronger than we are. But you’re taking this all much too personally. So emotional!
But it’s the first part of that dialogue—the “smart as hell” part—that sadly proves incorrect.
The movie opens with an army sneak attack on apes in the jungle, which, despite many casualties, the apes win. Caesar arrives, grayer than ever, eyes the captives imperiously, but shows mercy. He lets the captured go.
Bad move. Shortly after, Caesar is betrayed by the white ape, Winter, who leads the enemy to the apes’ caves, where Caesar’s wife and kids are killed by The Colonel (Harrelson), wearing war paint similar to Brando in “Apocalypse.” From that moment on, the movie becomes a revenge flick; Caesar even leaves his people in pursuit of it.
Smart move—by the filmmakers. Governing is not only hard, it’s boring. In the last movie, the ape village scenes did nothing but bore me. Here, Caesar winds up traveling along the coast on horseback with the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), the gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), and the chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary). Along the way they pick up a mute “Les Miz”-looking blonde girl, Nova (Miller), and a nearly bald, comic relief chimp named “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn), who reminded me of some combo of Golem and Jar Jar Binks. They also come across a mystery. The human soldiers are killing and burying their own. Why?
Caesar’s not particularly smart in any of this. He’s following an army but isn’t stealthy. In the human military compound near (I believe) the California-Oregon border, he creeps close, is captured fairly easily, and has no plan of escape for either himself or his village—all of whom were captured after he left them. They’re forced into slave labor, building a wall of crude stone to the north. To stop what? To hold back what?
We also get the inevitable confrontation between a hero and villain who want to kill each other, and neither takes the opportunity. The Colonel lets Caesar live in chains while a chained Caesar doesn’t rip the Colonel’s face off with his teeth. Instead, it’s words words words. It's Trumpian tweets.
Caesar surmises that another human army isn’t coming to join the Colonel but attack him and his men. Thus the wall. (Except ... don't they have helicopters?) And the reason for the attack? It’s about the dead soldiers. The simian virus that killed off much of humanity has a variant strain that makes humans mute and simple-minded like Nova. So the Colonel, intent on protecting the species, orders infected humans killed and buried. Caesar, and the army to the north (Portland?), not to mention the movie itself, look upon the Colonel’s order with horror, but it's actually the smartest thing anyone does. When Nova brings her tiny, faceless doll into the compound, and the Colonel unknowingly picks it up, he gets the disease like that. That’s how deadly it is.
By that time, the Portlandia Army is in the process of attacking, the apes are in the process of escaping, yet Caesar remains behind to get revenge. Except he finds the Colonel mute, drunk, suicidal. So after much ponderous decision-making, Caesar lets the Colonel kill himself. Then he escapes fire (stuff blowing up) and ice (an avalanche), and leads his people to the promised land. It’s kinda Biblical. Or will be.
Here’s a question: After that avalanche kills off most of the two human armies, and the apes trek to that promised land, next to a nice lake, why do they assume they’ll be safe there? Because they’re away from the coast? Because we've reached the end of the movie? What about the humans in the hinterland? Aren’t they assholes, too?
I admit I like the cleverness of some of “War for...” Military men have “Monkey Killer” scrawled on their helmets and have scrawled “Donkey” (as in “Donkey Kong”) on the backs of the quisling apes. But there are too many problems, too many dead spots, too much stupidity. These days in particular, I want smarter leaders.