War for the Planet of the Apes is the third film of the rebooted series and one of the best. With its austere visual palette and dark tonal mood it could so easily have been a flawless masterpiece. Unfortunately, a couple of trivial missteps get in the way of its overall quality and undermine the film’s otherwise brutal solemnity.
War begins 15 years after the simian flu outbreak that wiped out much of the human species. Caesar still rules his fledgling nation but, as shown at the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a military battalion has been dispatched to eliminate the apes. Things go badly wrong, though, when Woody Harrelson’s trigger-happy, “Mistah Kurtz”-like, commander fails to assassinate Caesar and instead causes some unfortunate collateral damage. Caesar, now drawn into a grim blood feud, sets out to kill the commander whilst his ape community searches for a new home.
Caesar is joined by a few of his most loyal followers and is drawn to the edge of a very dark place as he becomes consumed with an obsessive need for revenge. In the previous film, the ape Koba became a rival leader to Caesar but he was too atavistically violent and dogmatic to prevail. Caesar had a greater sense of pragmatism and political nuance, but throughout War for the Planet of the Apes he has to confront his primal drive to absolute violence with which he has now become possessed. Koba reappears in this film, a ghostly hallucination urging Caesar to follow his urge to vengeance like some devil on his shoulder.
The film compellingly charts Caesar’s journey to the heart of darkness and displays its Apocalypse Now influences with pride. Along the way, the first misstep occurs as Caesar and his retinue pick up a new follower known as Bad Ape. Bad Ape learned his name from humans when he was in captivity, but for some reason he is played as a slapstick tomfool. Some reviewers have commented that Bad Ape provides some much needed levity to lighten the tone of the film but, for me, his presence is an unnecessary concession to the summer blockbuster market and unfortunately undercuts the otherwise dark tone that the film employs. If I didn’t make a point of never being cruel to animals, I might choose to compare Bad Ape to Jar Jar Binks.
The second misstep concerns the characterization of the commander. When Caesar sets out on his revenge mission he learns that the commander is based near a border but he doesn’t know exactly where it is. When he meets Bad Ape he finds out that Bad Ape knows the location of the border and so they are able to track down the commander. Upon finding his base, Caesar is horrified to learn that the commander has imprisoned Caesar’s ape community whom Caesar had earlier left, and that he is forcing them to build a wall. For some inexplicable reason the commander will not allow the enslaved apes any food or water. Now, the problem here is that the references to Trump are clumsy and overblown. The rogue battalion that the commander is leading are called Alpha-Omega and they are depicted as being an almost cultish, right wing militia. In itself, this would work perfectly well in terms of the ongoing Apes story-line, and it must have been an established part of the script well before Trump became the Republican nominee last year. But the heavy signalling of the Trump parallels suggests that the film makers underestimate the material with which they are working. War for the Planet of the Apes is at heart a better film than this clumsy referencing implies.
It’s also a better and deeper film than some leftist critics are willing to admit. In fact, the anti-Trump signalling may have been added into the film partly to deflect some of the accusations of racism that the franchise has attracted. The Apes franchise has suffered from these accusations because it attempts to depict an oppressed and exploited group, and to tell a story of their liberation. The problem is that in reading the film in those terms it is necessary to treat the apes as a metaphor for oppressed races, which is a sort of amusing irony. Certainly, the films fail to act as an anti-racist fable at this most basic level because they are only able to critique vulgar racism if you are willing to accept the vulgarly racist identification of non-whites with apes. So, at this level, the leftist critics are correct that the Apes films do not succeed as an anti-racist metaphor. But I’m not interested in watching PC propaganda so this level of the film doesn’t really interest me at all.
What is far more worthy of consideration is that the films are concerned with the emergence of a completely new grouping within the context of a dominant, but dying, group. When viewed from a Spenglerian perspective, the Apes films become a ready metaphor for the emergence of a new Culture from the ashes of a spent Civilization. As I noted in my review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the apes initially encounter a defining moment of symbolic understanding when Caesar uses the symbol of the fasces to explain how apes – together – are strong. This was the moment when the apes began to perceive themselves as a community rather than as a collection of individuals. In other words, it was the birth of a nation. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes the in-group identification becomes stronger as the ethical imperative “ape not kill ape” emerges as the first commandment.
In War, the commander’s rogue unit is a sort of dark mirror to the ape community. Both are predicated on fascist principles but within each group those principles play out in very different ways. The apes are a youthful, healthy, tribal community wherein differences are sorted out face to face with violence between those directly involved. Conversely, in the commander’s unit an abstract military principle holds sway, the unit itself being but one element of a larger industrialized army (i.e., the remnants of the US army). The commander’s reversion to fascism is a response to the sickness that has overtaken the human world. If you remember, the simian flu was caused by a side effect of a drug that was developed to cure Alzheimer’s. The commander is responding in a rational way to a crisis of senility and disease, but his response can only ever be a reactionary one because the world to which he belongs is utterly spent; he can only mimic the healthy aspects of fascism. In this sense, the analogy with Trump is a sound one because Trump’s success is a semi-nationalist backlash against the enervation of the West. What would have been far better from an artistic point of view is if the film had allowed the analogy to remain at something of a buried level. Instead, the audience is explicitly told that the commander is building a wall at the border.
As the film reaches its highly enjoyable conclusion, there is another asymmetrical reflection that again emphasizes the difference between the two communities. A number of apes have turned traitor and now work for the humans, despite their low-caste status within the human grouping. During the final battle when Caesar is wounded by one of the soldiers, one of the turncoat apes, Red, reverts back to his blood loyalty and kills Caesar’s attacker. Red is then himself killed but by this final act of loyalty he has remembered the first commandment, ape not kill ape, and redeemed himself. Eventually, when Caesar confronts the commander for the final showdown, we learn that a new strain of simian flu has emerged and is now infecting those humans who were resistant to the original strain. The initial symptom of infection is muteness. It transpires that the commander’s son had earlier become mute and so the commander had been forced to kill him. The contrast between Red’s reversion to blood loyalty and in-group ethics, and the commander’s infanticide is the contrast between a youthful, healthy society poised to inherit the earth and an unwell, dying society declining into historical silence.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a fitting end to a very impressive reboot. Viewed together, the three Apes films must be one of the most impressive trilogies in cinema history. Certainly, this rebooted series has a far greater consistency than the original series of Apes films. And War for the Planet of the Apes, in particular, is a better film than even its makers seem to realize. It asks some very important civilizational questions about where we should go from here. Specifically, the film seems to ask, should we revert to an authoritarian, tired form of fascism to prop up a dying civilization; or should we embrace a youthful and mobile form of fascism to create something new? The choice we make might have aeonic consequences.