Many of Hollywood’s best actors and directors have been moving away from the silver screen and toward the small screen, out of the perception that television shows offer more creative freedom and potential. This is especially the case with the summer blockbuster: a movie that is designed to maximize special effects, minimize thought in the viewer, and somehow manage to earn boatloads of money for the studio. Recent trends are enough to make any movie lover more than a little cynical.
“War for the Planet of the Apes,” directed by Matt Reeves, bucks all of these trends and delivers a thoughtful and profound cinematic experience. This is the third installment of the reboot of this franchise, and while it seems that more movies are in the works (Hollywood can’t help itself, of course), the narrative arc allows it to be seen as the final part of a trilogy including “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”
The first part consisted of the hyper-intelligent chimp Caesar’s backstory and his establishment of an ape civilization, and the second part consisted of internal strife within the community and conflict with the remaining humans. The new part picks up a couple years later in the aftermath of this conflict.
A Poetic Technique
One thing you may not notice at first about “War for the Planet of the Apes” is how little dialogue the film contains. The story largely follows the apes, where Caesar is a man (so to speak) of few words, and most of the other apes communicate through sign language, with the meaning conveyed to viewers through unobtrusive captions. The cinematography is fluid, with close-ups on the intensity of expression on Caesar’s face often doing more than any verbose exposition could ever achieve. This is a daring move for a film of this magnitude, but it comes off very well, with the viewer not feeling jarred out of the flow established by the cinematographic style.
This poetic style is accentuated by the soundtrack of the film, composed by Michael Giacchino. The subtle score often uses sounds that seem to be emitted by a xylophone or even an old-fashioned music box. This sets the tone of the film as a whole, a key theme of which is Caesar’s spiritual struggle with himself. Despite the name of the film, “War for the Planet of the Apes” features a minimum of actual violent conflict. What is more characteristic of the movie can be seen in a scene of a giant gorilla tucking an orchid behind a little girl’s ear while the soundtrack chimes in the background.
This contrasts in a sharp and beautiful way with Hollywood’s usual reliance on cheesy dialogue and overpowering scores. Reeves has achieved much more through the effective use of silence and subtlety. One effect is that although the film is centered on apes, the characters exude more humanity than many of the caricatures that often fill the silver screen.
A Tragic and Demented Villain
The main villain of “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a man only known as the Colonel. This man kills Caesar’s wife and son (albeit without knowing it—he was going for Caesar himself), and this sets Caesar off on the revenge quest that frames much of the narrative of the film. In the previous installment of this trilogy, “Dawn,” Caesar had fought to overcome an enraged bonobo named Koba who could think of nothing but revenge against humans. A moving motif of this new movie consists of Caesar struggling with his own pain and rage, and realizing that these dark emotions are making him a lot like Koba.
The Colonel has adopted a policy of killing all humans, including his own son, who have acquired a mutated version of the original virus that killed so many people. This new version makes humans unable to speak. In a line that reads as a parody of Christianity, the Colonel says: “I sacrificed my only son, so that humanity may be saved.”
There is no doubting that the Colonel is a man of principle; his clarity of purpose verges on the terrifying. This is what makes him a tragic figure: if his principle were not so demented, then there would be something very heroic about the man. As it stands, however, it is clear that he has sacrificed his humanity in the name of his vision of the future.
This is a final irony, given that the Colonel thinks he has done this in order to save the human race. But this makes one want to echo Caesar’s comment to a turncoat gorilla who has decided to work with humans in a desperate bid to save himself: “How much of you is there left to save?” The Colonel is a man who kills his own son in the name of his ideology, and he forces his followers to adopt the same ethos and kill their friends if the need arises. This contrasts sharply with the actual humanity displayed by Caesar, who is loyal to his “people” and driven almost to madness by the death of his own family.
The Angelic Mute Girl
In their journey, Caesar and his comrades encounter a little girl who cannot speak. They end up adopting her, due to the compassionate orangutan Maurice insisting that he cannot just leave her to die. This girl is the only sympathetic human in the entire film. She weeps over the death of the gorilla who put a flower in her hair; she begins to learn sign language from Maurice.
In one scene that takes place in an ape prison camp later in the film, the little girl walks through the darkness of the camp like an angel, giving Caesar nourishment and giving all the other apes hope by virtue of her presence. It is an ethereal scene, with the viewer being convinced that for all the dangers of the world, this little girl must be untouchable.
At times, it can almost seem “War for the Planet of the Apes” is anti-human. Even at the brink of extinction, all that the remaining humans can think about is killing each other, whereas Caesar has only ever wanted to find a place where his community of apes could live in peace. This paints a sordid picture of what human nature is.
However, this assessment would be incomplete without accepting that the little mute girl is also human. This opens up the philosophical vista of the movie to a conception of real humanity as being not so much a matter of biological species but rather a quality of soul.
The Measure of a Man
Almost all the main characters in Reeves’s film are apes, which makes it all the more curious that one of the main questions it makes the viewer ask is: what is a man? The inevitable conclusion that emerges is that a man is someone who exhibits certain qualities of soul, such as kindness, courage, and intelligence.
The gorilla who put the flower in the girl’s hair is a man, as is Caesar, who does for his apes what Moses did for the Jews. On the other hand, a human in the movie tries to kill Caesar, even after Caesar had previously spared his life out of mercy. The viewer is moved to affirm that although this guy may be human at the genetic level, he is not a man in any important sense of the word. Likewise, the turncoat ape kills that dishonorable man in order to save Caesar, thereby reclaiming his own lost honor. This redemption also renders this ape a man.
Why do we always think of aliens as reptiles? It’s probably because we feel in our bones that there could be nothing better than being human, and that any other hyper-intelligent creature must be lacking in the essentials of soul. To call someone reptilian is always an insult; it suggests that he acts in cold blood, and has no heart.
The Christian revelation says that the Lord became a man. It seems to me, though, that the idea of “man” in this context must be understood in spiritual and not just biological terms. There are humans who fall far short of the anything resembling the True Man; and on the other hand, it would be absurd to suggest that Caesar is not among the best of men, just because of his genome. And when we evaluate Caesar, we are doing so in recognizable human terms. We don’t admire him because he’s on some different scale altogether, but rather because he so often exemplifies what is best in us humans.