The Ape with No Name

War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2017)

The original Planet of the Apes franchise is a good example of the way in which sf film moved from radical to conservative between the late 1960s and late 1970s. Whilst the original Pierre Boulle novel presumably needs to be read in terms of French political history and colonialism, or in terms of class, the films seemed to offer an allegory for America in the civil rights era, with the apes standing in for whites, African Americans and Jews. Certainly we have the spectacle of Charlton Heston, old Moses and Ben Hur, and fellow white astronauts being subjected to the slave experience. As a sequel gave way to prequels, the films seemed to become more anxious about the politics (and there is something frankly racist about the allegory).

Tim Burton revived the series in 2001, with a frankly throwaway film, which restored a version of the original novel’s ending, and just confused the hell out of everyone — adding to my impression that he’s hardly made three decent films since Edward Scissorhands and that Helena Bonham Carter is sufficient reason to skip a movie. It made money, but Fox went a reboot route in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where motion capture and CGI evidently improved on Burton’s make it, but I found the shakeycam somewhat nausea inducing. I skipped out on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and I don’t even know who Dawn was. Now we presumably conclude a trilogy with War for the Planet of the Apes (2017).

A simian flu seems to have rendered apes intelligent and killed millions of humans or struck them dumb. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is hiding out with other intelligent apes in the woods of the northwest US, trying to build a life, but the military are seeking them out and raid their enclave. The apes are planning a move to the promised land, but there is another raid and Caesar’s wife and eldest son are killed. Caesar sends the apes off, whilst he, with a small party, seeks revenge on Colonel McCullough, the killer.

Oddly, given what is to come, the film begins from the human perspective, following the raid, and we seem to be in Vietnam War movie territory, with the apes as Vietcong or giant Ewoks. McCullough will emerge as a crazed military figure, rather than a sensible defender of humanity, a Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now — although technically that is Cambodia rather than Vietnam. We cannot help but be moved by the death of the apes and the mercy Caesar shows.

But with a shift of viewpoint to the apes, we are in revenge western mode. A small party track the colonel across the mountains, picking up a mute human girl and a talking chimpanzee along the way. The posse evade capture initially, but on discovering that the rest of the apes have been captured and turned into slaves, Caesar has no choice but to enter the military base. The second half of the film is the attempt to rescue the apes before the cavalry arrive and the way Caesar’s revenge pans out.

In the era of Black Lives Matter, the film’s allegory — if indeed it is one — is less than clear. Several Black human characters act as an alibi against such a reading, but the treatment of the apes recalls the treatment of slaves in pre-civil war days. A recent reading of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad inevitably set me down that road, too. At the same time, the appearance of an equivalent to the syphilis-infected blankets recalls the white treatment of the Native American, and the apes seem to have a manifest destiny in their land by the lake. The mute girl, meanwhile, seems to be saying #notallhumans.

Several of the ape characters who have turned traitor are able to redeem themselves and Caesar learns that revenge will not bring closure. Or the dead back to life. We are, again, in western territory, with the itinerant outsider leader being able to save the community but not return to it. John Ford’s movies are clearly part of the palette, but he increasingly brought a mythic ambiguity to his films and John Wayne’s heroics are frequently undercut.

Almost inevitably we turn to Moses, who led his people out of bondage and to the edge of the promised land. But Moses died before he got there, of course. And the suspicion that all but two of the apes we have seen are male may make us question how long this community will survive.

The special effects are faultless — Andy Serkis is Caesar, even more than he was Gollum. The fur looks real and solid, and they are definitely in this landscape rather than seeming superimposed. The other apes convince equally. McCullough, Woody Harrelson who has spent a lifetime not being that guy from Cheers, tends to the gurn and his evil nature is meant to be rendered more complex by a long speech explaining his motivations, which brings the film to an shuddering halt and should have been closer to the end rather than a preview to three or four set piece sequences (like most blockbusters, this is a good half hour too long). I can’t help but feel that he is falling into the trap that so many Bond villains fall into — explaining their scheme rather than killing their antagonist.

But obviously spending so much money on a movie leads to a sense of incoherence, even if it better than any other blockbuster I’ve seen since Rogue One. But that is damning with faint praise.

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