Friday, July 28, 2017
The Films of 2017: War for the Planet of the Apes
(Spoiler Warning: Details of this film are extensively described below).
It is a welcome surprise to report that the new Planet of the Apes franchise has gone three-for-three in terms of quality.
This saga -- consisting of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), and War on the Planet of the Apes (2017) -- has proven to be a dramatic high-point of modern, reboot cinema.
In short, all three of these science fiction films are better, merely as stand-alones, than we have any right to expect, given Hollywood norms.
But the most delightful thing about the trilogy, as proven firmly by War, is that the series also coheres beautifully as overall tale, or large-scale narrative.
War on the Planet of the Apes not only dramatizes a satisfying and emotional story about Caesar, with resonant, and powerful characters all around, it also weaves the whole saga together in a successful, artistic manner.
And then, finally -- with laser-like focus -- it aims that saga straight on course for the 1968 Planet of the Apes film, which is set in a future 2000 years hence.
But here’s the thing of import:
I did not hope or expect for War on the Planet of the Apes to fit so ably into or establish the continuity of the original Apes franchise.
I did not even know, at this point, that I wanted such a thing.
I suppose that I am jaded or cynical enough about Hollywood, at this point, to have given up on that particular dream of an Apes continuation.
Yet War on the Planet of the Apes succeeds in forging that link, and it does so in ways that appear unforced, effortless, and smooth.
So War on the Planet of the Apes is a remarkable standalone adventure, a brilliant apex for the reboot trilogy, and, finally, the “perfect” bridge between the 1960’s and 1970’s Apes chronology, and this 21st century one.
To complete and contextualize the Gospel of Caesar -- which is really what the three films amount to -- War on the Planet of the Apes relies on antecedents such as the story of Jesus’s crucifixion, and the film, Apocalypse Now (1979).
But what truly makes this 2017 film remarkable, I believe, is not the “origin story” of the Caesar’s apes arriving at their home (a Garden of Eden beyond the Forbidden Zone-like desert), but rather the film’s sad, haunting commentary about the way that man loses his supremacy of the planet.
We live in an age of so much shouting, don’t we?
So much blind, stupid rage, and hateful yelling. It is an age not merely of hatred, then but loud, noisy hatred.
In War on the Planet of the Apes -- as though punished by God for his wicked, savage tongue -- mankind irrevocably, permanently goes silent.
This is apt punishment, given the nature of the film’s humans, particularly the villain played by Woody Harrelson.
I found this "fate" to be a terrifying but appropriate justice for man; for so foolish and self-destructive species.
With this film, the war is over, and man goes into that good night without even a whimper of protest.
We did it, finally, to ourselves.
War on the Planet of the Apes is the best franchise film of the summer of 2017, and one of the best pictures I’ve seen this year. It is the origin story of a people (the future apes of the Schaffner ’68 film) and simultaneously a poignant elegy for the human race.
“There are times when it is necessary to abandon humanity to save humanity.”
Following Koba’s attack on humans, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes find themselves plunged into a vicious war with human soldiers.
These heavily armed soldiers are led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) and his rogue "Alpha/Omega" outfit, and they work with enslaved apes they derisively call “donkeys.”
The war hits Caesar too close to home when the Colonel launches a decapitation strike, but succeeds only in killing his eldest son, and wife.
Enraged, Caesar determines to go on the war path. He sends the majority of the apes on a pilgrimage to a new, hopefully safe land, far away, and takes Maurice (Karin Konovol) and a few others to hunt down the Colonel at a northern border.
En route, Caesar, Maurice and the others befriend a mute girl that Maurice names Nova (Amiah Miller), and then, a solitary chimp, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), who possesses knowledge of the Colonel, and his brutal work camp.
Soon, Caesar learns that his people have been captured on their pilgrimage, and made slaves at the camp.
He must attempt to free them, and his only son, Cornelius.
The Colonel takes special delight in humiliating Caesar, but also tells him of a strange side-effect of the Simian Flu (which all humans carry). Man is becoming mute, and may even be losing his capacity to reason.
Caesar must now set his people free, find his apes a new home, far from warring humanity, and also reconcile his feelings of rage and hatred with his more fair-minded, judicious nature.
“Make sure my son knows who his father was.”
From 2011 to 2017, movie-goers have witnessed the Gospel of Caesar, but War for the Planet of the Apes in particular utilizes religious (scriptural) symbolism to help us understand the religious nature of the story.
Consider that the film depicts Caesar’s crucifixion, at the hands of the Colonel and his men. The tale even provides a Judas in the form of Winter: an albino gorilla who betrays Caesar and his people to the humans.
The crucifixion in the work camp is only the most apparent religious symbol. Consider, as well, the matter of Caesar’s fatal wound at the end of the picture. He is shot in the side with an arrow. That arrow comes from one of the Colonel’s soldiers. The position of the wound, and the nature of the weapon knowingly mirrors Jesus’s wound from the lance of Longinus. Longinus was a Roman centurion, who stabbed Christ. Again, the parallels between Christ and Caesar are telling: a fatal wound in the same place, both given by an enemy soldier.
Maurice, of course, is the franchise's version of Paul. He is Caesar’s greatest apostle, and it is clear from the film’s final scenes that he will grow into an early teacher o Caesar’s “lessons” to ape culture. This was also Paul’s role. Specifically, Maurice promises to teach Caesar’s surviving son, Cornelius, about his life, and his nature. We can extrapolate that other apes will also be taught about the sacrifices and morality of Caesar. We now know his humble origins (as the child of an ape, but not, actually, only an ape), his life of toils and pain, and ultimately, with this film, his fate.
If readers prefer to be reminded of Old Testament comparisons, Caesar, in this film, acts as a Moses-type figure. He leads his “tribe” to the Promised Land away from human subjugation and war. Caesar doesn’t part the Red Sea, but he does survive nature’s dangers. His people begin their quest, importantly, by surviving an avalanche which buries, for eternity, the surviving human military, and their weapons. The Colonel’s corrupt kingdom is Egypt in this metaphor, and Caesar and his people are the Israelites, seeking a home. Instead of parting the red sea, Caesar and his apes go above the treacherous avalanche by climbing trees. This image is also a beautiful call-back to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), and young Caesar's exercise regimen in Muir Woods
None of this symbolism is over-bearing or heavy-handed. One can absolutely enjoy the film without making comparisons to Christianity. However, the specific nature of Caesar’s quest, and his death, suggest -- importantly-- that in the future history of the planet Earth, his people will revere him as something akin to a God among apes.
At least that’s a possibility, and we have the “sign posts” (the imagery) to cue us in about Caesar's extraordinary -- or even “divine” --` nature.
Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) is clearly also an influential text in this work of art too. In the film, we see graffiti that reads “Ape-pocalypse Now,” and Harrelson’s Colonel shares a rank with Marlon Brando’s character, Kurtz.
Both men/characters have also gone “rogue” from the chain of command, and are worshiped by their people as demi-gods. They are cult-leaders as much as military officers.
Going back to Conrad’s Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (the source for the Coppola film’s character), he was a man who is remembered for having said “exterminate the brutes.” He was referring to intelligent human beings in the Free Congo. Harrelson’s Colonel in this film similarly launches a pogrom of extermination against Caesar’s apes, aware that their survival will doom the human race.
If the character of the Colonel boasts any antecedent, in particular, in the classic film franchise, it is likely Otto Hasslein, from Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971). Both men believe that fate or destiny can be averted by taking violent, murderous action in the present. They both commit fully, and mercilessly to this course.
So how does this sage connect, specifically, to the old franchise?
You may recall a throwaway image or two in Rise of the Planet of the Apes discussing the launch and fate -- lost in space! -- of Taylor’s spaceship, the Icarus.
In this continuity, the flight occurs in 2011, not the early 1970’s but the name of the ship is the same, as is the fact that the ship seems, to denizens of Earth, to disappear. It is, as we realize, really traveling into the future, on a course that will day return it home.
So that spaceship is out there, destined to return to Earth in the 3900’s.
In War for the Planet of the Apes, some of the other pieces that set-up the 1968 film are locked into the puzzle.
Caesar’s people leave the West Coast, travel through a desert (the future Forbidden Zone, presumably), and find a beautiful green glade, on the banks of a thriving river. This is the location, we can infer, in New York (or at least on the East Coast) of Ape City in Planet of the Apes (1968). So this film's final moments get Caesar’s people to the right coast (and in proximity of the Statue of Liberty!), to set up Taylor's experience there.
Finally, Maurice takes on his role as an apostle, as a speaker of Ape History, and, perhaps, becomes the future Lawgiver.
Consider that Maurice is, like the Lawgiver, an orangutan, and that he has been tasked with the job of teaching the Gospel of Caesar. It is very likely that one day, he will take on the title of the most revered ape, The Lawgiver.
What proves so interesting about this development is that, in the Ape Future of the original film, Caesar’s name is never spoken. The legend of the Lawgiver (and his written word: the Sacred Scrolls) thus comes to supersede Caesar as the messiah/divinity figure of ape culture.
So if you wonder what the next ape trilogy might concern, I have an idea the role of Maurice, and his fall from grace or innocence.
At some point he must stop trying to make peace with humans, and start to write of humanity as a “the beast, man.” It is also entirely possible that in the generations between Maurice and the 3900’s, his gentle philosophies and beliefs will be perverted or misinterpreted by ambitious, man-hating apes.
What might happen between the events of War and the 1968 film?
I suppose the final piece may be a nuclear war. A group of humans, offshoots of the Colonel’s Alpha and Omega group (a callback to Beneath the Planet of the Apes ), perhaps, will detonate a bomb near Ape City, or perhaps, on a global scale, decimating whole swaths of the planet. The destruction of the environment, a useless, bitter gesture, given man’s fall could be the very thing that turns Maurice from an advocate for peace into a hater of mankind.
And, of course, most importantly, War for the Planet of the Apes sets in motion that final fall of mankind.
Man will go down into history as a foolish, self-destructive being, who can’t even argue his own case for supremacy, because he has lost his capacity to speak. As the movie dramatizes, the Simian Flu mutates so as to rob humanity of his ability to speak. It is not entirely clear, but the Colonel also believes the virus robs humanity of his ability to reason; to think logically. If this is the case, then the Sacred Scrolls of the first film are, in a sense, truer than we ever realized. Man of the future world is a dumb brute, unable to reason, or think. He is a blind consumer of resources, an animal.
As I wrote in my introduction, to see man lose his voice in this film is haunting, and breathtaking. Not just because the loss connects to the details of the 1968 film, but because of the world we live in now, in 2017.
Cable TV is a bastion of bitter taunts, hate speech, and gotcha politics. Look at how we’ve chosen to use Twitter and other social media: as opportunities to troll others, to hate others, to spread lies, to forward , even, conspiracy theories and racist memes.
What War for the Planet of the Apes implies, in some sense, is God’s disappointment, and punishment of man for using his intellect in this manner.
Not only will mankind die, but he will be robbed even, of the power to speak, to argue, to debate. He has squandered that great gift of voice, and now his fall will not even be accompanied by screams, or crying.
He will go silently into that good night, unthinking, un-speaking, unable to mourn aloud his fall from favor.
I confess that this aspect of the film was incredibly impact-ful to me. I vacillate between dreaming of a Star Trek-kian future utopia, and fearing a Planet of the Apes-style apocalypse. Our fall from grace in this film seems especially appropriate, given how we have chosen to use our “voices” in the public square, and on the net.
It is a timely and artistic choice for the makers of this saga to make man mute, at this juncture, at this time in our culture. It plays as more powerful today, than it did in earlier generations. Today, everyone has the power to contribute their voice to the community. But what we have seen is not a community lifting its voice to help others. Instead, we have seen a rebirth and broadcast of hate, racism, sexism, paranoia, and conspiracy theories. We have seen the rise of extreme narcissism, the dawn of widespread propaganda, and a war to obfuscate facts, and to hold onto the tenets of science.
When people discuss -- seriously -- in 2017, a new flat Earth theory, the fall of man, the de-evolution of man, seems only years away. Perhaps we reached our pinnacle as a species when we landed on the Moon. Perhaps our fall from grace has already begun.
War for the Planet of the Apes thus captures beautifully, if tragically, the real terror and fear of our times; the idea that we can't stop sniping at each other long enough to take care of the species, let alone the planet.
Lastly, I would be hard-pressed to name a better film trilogy of the 21sts century than this one.
I know The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit sagas have their champions, and for good reason, but the amazing gift of this new Planet of the Apes saga is that it does so much so smoothly, and with so much discipline. None of these films feel over long, or retreads of old material. They all work, in tandem, as original stories, and as pieces of a grand, overarching saga.
And now, as this trilogy ends, we can see a grand plan to connect to the original franchise (or some version of the original franchise). The ambition was there all along, but the filmmakers demonstrated patience, and laid their bread crumbs, without drawing over attention to them.
I have to write, too often, about the creative failings of remakes and reboots (see: Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes). It is therefore a pleasure and a privilege to behold the wonders and victories of this reboot series. The “new” Planet of the Apes series pays homage to what came before, honors the spirit of social commentary those old films championed, and it breaks new ground at the same time.
Like the best science fiction films, War of the Planet of the Apes makes us see ourselves more fully, more completely. The scary thing about the film is that as much as it frightened me, I also thirsted for the humans to fall, to be, finally, silent. For the hatred to end. This feeling made me think of Armando's (Ricardo Montalban) words in Escape: "If it is man's destiny one day to be dominated, then oh, please God, let him be dominated by such as you."
It's a special genre motion picture, indeed, that has the audience rooting against its own kind.
Finally, I hope that Andy Serkis, and the film itself are remembered at Oscar time next year. Serkis’s work as Caesar is extraordinary. Roddy McDowall created Caesar more than forty years ago, but Serkis has honored that work and carried it several steps forward. He has made the character his own in a remarkable, and dare I say -- human --fashion.