One of the most successful rebooted franchises of recent years has been the Planet of the Apes series, finding a new perspective on how the world emerged. Planet of the Apes (1968) pitted astronaut Taylor against a future Earth, screaming against the Statue of Liberty buried in sand. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) destroyed the world itself, but the films that followed travelled back through time through deus ex machina. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) positioned us in the near future as Will Rodman sought an Alzheimer’s cure, exploring the relationship between man and chimp and touching upon contemporary anxieties, with the global pandemic of the Simian Flu spreading on an airplane. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) expanded that world further, as a diminishing human population sought to survive. Director Matt Reeves might be best known for Cloverfield (2008), but is quickly becoming a big name, developing The Batman for Warner Bros.
Caesar (Andy Serkis) may be the defining character of the rebooted trilogy, but Caesar was never the focal character in the original series, played by Roddy McDowall in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). Serkis has dominated motion capture, roles as diverse as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings (2002-04) and The Hobbit (2012-14), Captain Haddock in The Adventures of Tintin (2011) and the mysterious Snoke in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). Serkis is so recognisable it becomes distracting: beneath his voice and eyes, we see Serkis, not Caesar. Caesar is never entirely sympathetic, forced to make uneasy decisions that cast his leadership in a bad light. Apes exist on a spectrum of colours and textures: orange, white, black, with characters like orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Caesar’s wife Cornelia (Judy Greer). WETA Digital have developed an impressive array of visual effects, but WETA’s realism is a contradiction, falling into the uncanny valley, seeking sympathy and emotion for ape characters that we know have no physical presence. Faces begin to look like a videogame, with close detail on wrinkles, fur, rain and blood vessels within the eye.
War for the Planet of the Apes positions conflict between apes and humans. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) suggested unity, a post-nuclear society of peace: in the forest, apes learnt human qualities through a school system. Rise attacked our treatment of animals, whilst in Dawn, we find sympathy in some characters but contempt in man’s militarism. War offers few shades of grey. Military faction Alpha-Omega is headed by Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), outfitting signs with “THE BEGINNING AND THE END”. Mute girl Nova (Amiah Miller) reminds us of our humanity, but barely: picking pink flowers in the snow, taking her name from a metal plate from an abandoned Chevy. Nova feels like a sister to Laura in Logan (2017), expressing herself through body language. Reeves positions her within the frame alone, a singular remnant of what humanity could be. But War for the Planet of the Apes is far more interested in its apes. Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), perhaps the most infuriating character, crosses boundaries between ape and human: hermit and sole survivor from the Sierra Zoo, personified by a hat he adopts from an abandoned ski lodge whilst attempting to convey comedy.
War draws upon imagery of multiple conflicts across different terrains, through forest and snow, evoking World War II in tanks, Iraq in uniforms and green lights, and pre-industrialised wars with apes riding upon horseback. In the opening, we gaze upon graffiti on Vietnam-esque helmets, soldiers marching forward in camouflage, outfitted with phrases like “BEDTIME FOR BONZO” and “COMBAT KILLER”. We follow a first-person perspective, staring through crosshairs at an ape on a horse. At times, forest combat feels like Return of the Jedi (1983), Ewoks protecting land from the Empire’s machinations.
In the snow, human bodies become identical, lines of white uniforms demarcated by a circle of blood. In his muscularity and masculinity, McCullough acts as an archetype, speaking highly in his admiration of Napoleon. He listens to Hendrix, holding onto his youth. McCullough peddles fundamentalist Christianity, hanging a cross upon the wall next to a picture of the son he sacrificed in biblical fashion for the greater good. His battle is spiritual, crucifying apes upon battlefields. When he commits suicide, drowned out by whiskey, we feel no sympathy.
In its runtime and 65mm, War for the Planet of the Apes attempts to be an old war epic: Reeves riffs on the relationship between Nicholson and Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and the scale of Apocalypse Now (1979), similar to Vogt-Roberts’ emulation of Vietnam War cinema in Kong: Skull Island (2017). Apes move through tunnels, setting off explosives, throwing mud at a soldier as a small act of revolt. There’s pathos to the destruction of the natural landscape: though a victory, devastation remains felt. War’s intertextuality is painstakingly obvious: graffiti on a tunnel reads “APE-POCALYPSE NOW”, as though we didn’t get the reference.
The Planet of the Apes series is directly tied to racial politics, both in how societies are structured and in how we treat others. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes built upon the racial conflict of the Civil Rights Movement, imagining a similar system to apartheid and segregation; apes kept as pets and slaves, leading to the fiery bloodshed of revolution. But the difficulty of reading the Planet of the Apes series through a racial lens is it embodies contradictions, no clear message lying beneath the surface. Human characters reflect white America: McCullough is obsessed with borders, but War is never about Trump. McCullough heads a rogue, militarised United States, groups of soldiers worshipping the American flag as an old record plays The Star-Spangled Banner; a flag set aflame during ensuing conflict. Alpha-Omega is dominated by white men; African-Americans and women become homogenised into the dominant system, without a voice, used as faces but not characters.
Imprisoned in camps, the old guard seeks to contain the new; apes are never a minority, but are kept back by existing power structures. Apes become redeployed in a way mirroring systems of slavery: redeployed in combat as lackeys, carrying equipment and turning on their own people. Apes become brandished with new names that aren’t their own, without heritage.
Borders aren’t just a question about Mexico, but about how America deals with Native Americans. The ape colony emerging in the Muir Woods around San Francisco represent new settlements; apes’ faces are painted in tribal imagery, seeking to reclaim land that was always theirs. War exists within a post-civilisation resembles an early America of manual labour, rooted in trees and overgrowth: remnants of the past still exist, faded Coca Cola trucks and tractors dotting the landscape, run-down corner stores, an abandoned ski resort thawed away by ice, frozen in time, but its landscapes never feel as effective as the concrete and hydroelectric dam in Dawn. Shot in Vancouver, natural landscapes are capped by waterfalls and snow, replenishing where humanity lived.
Reeves’ use of the imagery of westerns is a contradiction. In Muir Woods, whispers tell of great deserts and lands upon the horizon. Apes ride on horseback like cowboys, traversing the landscape of North America in a dream of new land and survival. In some respects, War draws parallels to Logan: a neo-western road movie, moving across from the Mexican to Canadian border in search of an Eden prophesied in comic books. In the final scene, War makes the western parallel obvious: Reeves slowly fades between shots as we walk into another film, discovering a colourful lakeside paradise that might as well be Monument Valley, clouds hanging stationary as though an artificial, painted backdrop. Caesar lays dying of his wounds, passing on to another generation, but his death captures little emotion; we never have enough reason to care. Logan’s parallels to the western worked because Mangold still innovated, developing his own visual style whilst acknowledging the influence of films like Shane (1953) within the film itself. But Reeves proves unable to find his own style, creating discontinuity of form with the previous films.
Reeves’ achievement is in sound and dialogue. From the opening logos, the soundscape immerses us with war drums, rain and the call of birds. The exposition in the opening captions conveys a documentary quality but with the same substance of a Wikipedia summary, RISE and DAWN awkwardly emphasised: we gaze upon a nature documentary, watching a civilisation we cannot entirely understand through human eyes. The director is not Matt Reeves, but David Attenborough. Scenes play with minimal dialogue, apes communicating through gestures, grunts and subtitled dialogue. Within world cinema, subtitles have direct justification, transcending cultural and language barriers. But Reeves’ subtitles create a hindrance to conveying meaning. Grunts seem a string of meaningless sounds, unable to capture emotion. Michael Giacchino’s score overpowers the soundscape, manipulating mood whilst never immersing us within the scene.
Caesar acts as interlocutor between apes and the viewer. Although Caesar’s use of English affords uneasy power within the tribe, it draws attention to the limitations of the film itself, speaking English with little justification. Dawn crafted narrative out of communication: conflict arose from miscommunication and conflicting needs, Alex’s sketches and love of Black Hole (1995) to emphasising the universality of visual communication. In War, Reeves explores how language acquisition is socialised. Raised in a zoo, Bad Ape’s broken English was acquired as a means to survive, embodying the philosophy of a working class sage. Devolution emerges from a loss of language acquisition. Nova’s communicates through her gaze with Maurice, edited in shot reverse shot and framed in close-up.
War builds itself as a remix of earlier genre works within a blockbuster franchise. But Reeves uses elements in a way that isn’t transformative, relying too heavily on recreation. War never feels fresh, with little to offer that hasn’t already been told in previous war or post-apocalyptic films. War can never be an old war epic or western, because that isn’t what it is.