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‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ is a Poignant Conclusion for a Blockbuster Hero

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Portrayed with seething, smirking menace by Woody Harrelson, The Colonel is an unhinged antagonist in Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes, radicalized by the loss of his son and fixated on genocide of the ascending simians. For him, the war is humanity’s defining conflict, our ultimate inflection point, the sum of our wars. The film alsopresents it as such, with guerilla violence breaking out in a dense forest that echoes Vietnam, before the conflict moves to a barren, snow-driven arena clearly representing concentration camps. An overt homage to Apocalypse Now‘s Colonel Kurtz, Harrelson’s military man fanatically wages his war in any environment, drawing inspiration from the entire tapestry of violent human conflict in his effort to extinguish the apes.

Like his antagonist, Reeves appears to have an encyclopedic understanding of war history – or, at least, it’s history on screen. Each of the film’s distinct settings are brought to life as an amalgam of cinematic conflicts: assault sequences in the forest habitat have the immersive look and feel of Lone Survivor, with echoes of the jungle sequences in Apocalypse Now, and after Caesar, leader of the apes and the hero of the trilogy, captures a handful of human soldiers at the film’s opening, an interrogation unfolds in a wooden trench that feels similar to the bamboo shanties in Deer Hunter. Once the film’s narrative heads north and the apes are imprisoned in a work camp, the film assumes a slow, bludgeoning atmosphere that unmistakably recalls Schindler’s List. Later, when Caesar is whipped before the whole camp for insubordination, Roots is brought to mind. Finally, when Caesar architects an escape from the hellish landscape, the film draws inspiration from The Great Escape.

The film’s references are more than just fodder for fans of the war genre – War for the Planet of the Apes allegorizes inhumanity and uses prior films as a quickly recognizable shorthand in its numerous lessons. The Colonel looks and behaves like Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, and viewers are supposed to interpret him similarly: tortured by horror and drunk with power, a god among his band of separatist zealots. By placing the apes in a camp that directly references the holocaust, the film drives home its framing of Caesar as a messianic figure, the Moses of a race of apes he must lead out of slavery and into salvation.

The miracle of War for the Planet of the Apes is that, despite its unrelenting reliance on obvious parable and an overall darkness (especially in a long, slow, middle section), the film manages to powerfully connect on an internal level, mostly because of its protagonist. The Apes trilogy, understood as blockbuster genre fare with groundbreaking visuals, is notable for at least having the ambition to pick at large-scale, exterior human dynamics of fear-based oppression, tribalism, and self-destruction. Understood as the interior portrait of one character, however, the series is the moving story of a leader driven by naïve benevolence and fierce familial love in equal measure. War for the Planet of the Apes is a harrowing war movie and an exciting escape movie, but it resonates most strongly as a poignant denouement for Caesar.

Having gifted his species higher intelligence in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and protected them from splintering in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar faces the gravest threat to ape survival yet in War for the Planet of the Apes. Haunted by memories of Koba, the treasonous bonobo who once attempted to assassinate him, Caesar must shepherd his flock to a safe haven, far from the assaults of The Colonel. The film is crystal clear in its characterization of humans: we are the villains in this trilogy, and even after Caesar attempts to establish peace, seeking only refuge in the woods, The Colonel is persistent in his pursuit. When the apes are captured and enslaved by The Colonel, who ironically uses them to build a wall for his protection from other humans, it is Caesar who must engineer their escape.

The trilogy’s final installment adds a layer to its hero, a ferocity that undercuts the idealism that defined him in films past. After a strike by the Colonel early in the film costs Caesar dearly, he becomes consumed by vengeance – not unlike Koba. It is his vengeful pride that costs the apes their freedom in the first place, and his obsession with The Colonel that provides the film’s largest hurdle.

A quiet, tense scene later comes to a contemplative conclusion, rather than an explosive act of catharsis. Much of the film zigs when you expect it to zag, dipping into long stretches of quiet introspection when one might expect instances of plot revelation, or maintaining a staunch insistence on the wickedness of humans when one might expect redemption. As Caesar, Andy Serkis has quickened his rate of speech, allowing the character to verbally spar with human antagonists more fluently, but scenes between apes in the film still unfold mostly through sign language, which gives War for the Planet of the Apes a lulling, nearly hypnotic quality that is jarringly punctured when action breaks out.

By any metric, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was more a “war movie” than War for the Planet of the Apes is; that film was more action packed, and followed a more formulaic action structure. This film is more concerned with a war of ideas – between wariness and trust, between fatalism and optimism – than a literal clash between sides. It asserts that actions manifest themselves in reality. As the humans become more barbaric, they are infected with a plague that literally strips them of there humanity, rendering them animalistic, while as the apes strive for peace, exercise mercy, and shun fanaticism, they become more “human.” It fits that the film’s most chaotic, lengthy assault takes place between human factions, as Caesar and his apes scramble to safety. That sequence serves as a punctuation mark to the film’s thesis: humans, and the tribal nature that logically dooms us to mutually assured destruction, don’t deserve this world – better to leave it to the apes.

Mike hails from the great state of Massachusetts, where he structured his identity around three inarguable truths - that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, Pearl Jam is the best band since 1980, and those who disagree are dead wrong. He complains about the proliferation of superhero movies while gleefully forking over sixteen dollars for each new release, and believes Tom Cruise has yet to make a bad movie. Follow Mike on twitter @haigismichael.

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