Despite its many great achievements, humanity often fails spectacularly at one critically-important thing – being human.
It is an existential Achilles heel, witnessed in our ongoing lack of willingness to show mercy instead of vengeance, pursue peace in place of conflict, practice love over hate, and it proves to be our downfall in the final instalment of the Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy.
In the Matt Reeves directed War for the Planet of the Apes – he also helmed the film’s predecessor in the series, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) which, along with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, is elegantly summed up in two expositionally-taut paragraphs at the film’s start – our fragile grasp on basic humanity eats away at us, slowly, and in one climactic scene near the end of the film, devastatingly spectacularly and quickly.
The apes, led by the usually wise and considered Caesar (Andy Serkis in impressively-nuanced form) – in War, vengeance leads him to abrogate his “humanity”, pursuing bloody hate-fuelled vengeance over the practice of mercy – are, to put it simply, more human than we are much of the time.
Not always of course, as the recurrent spectre of Koba, a traitorous Bonobo, once close to Caesar, who led a rebellion against him in Dawn, emphasises all too well as the lesser angel of the tortured ape leader’s soul throughout the film; but by and large, the apes lead by merciful example, even in the midst of a war they have no interest in pursuing, sparing the lives of prisoners of war, and offering to cease hostilities if humanity will leave them alone in their beloved woods.
But humanity, or more accurately, one rogue element of it, led by a ferally-obsessed man called The Colonel (Woody Harrelson, proving once again that he is a master at playing the wild, almost-unhinged) is manifestly, and destructively, reluctant to accept such offers, seeing the apes as an enemy that must be vanquished, and vanquished swiftly and with apocalyptic precision.
It won’t necessarily improve humanity’s chances of survival, with evidence emerging in the form of a young human orphan Nova (named after the Chevy model and played by Amiah Miller), adopted by Caesar’s friend and conscience Maurice (Karin Konoval), that the virus has mutated, robbing people of their higher functioning, including complex reasoning and speech (but as the young girl shows again and again, not their capacity for empathy and care).
At the same time as it is robbing humanity of its defining trappings of civilised thought and deed, it is elevating apes worldwide to the status of intelligent, culture inheritors of the earth, neatly explaining two crucial elements of the 1960s-originated series – the planetary dominance of apes and humanity’s relative barbarity.
Narratively convenient though these elements might be at times, they play an important role in facilitating one potently dramatic, and deeply poignant, scene between the Colonel and Ceasar that helps the leader of the apes reclaim his innate humanity, and signals that people are done for, no matter which tactics they employ.
For all its celebration of the apes’ possession of a humanity more inclusive, loving and community-minded than its unasked-for enemies, the carefully-articulated and affecting screenplay by Mark Bomback (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and Matt Reeves, is also at great pains to mark apes’ own distinctive qualities, ones that set them apart and put them in pole position to take over the planet as the reign of Homo Sapiens comes to an inglorious end.
Take for instance the apes near-chant-like recitation of “Apes Together Strong”, accompanied by a standing, fists-joined stand of defiance; it’s not just a unifying catchy slogan but a reminder, a constant, oft-repeated rejoinder – ignored at times by Caesar who is on a one-ape mission to settle a score with The Colonel after he enacts a terrible loss on the apes’ leader – that true strength comes from pursuing solidarity over naked ambition.
Koba is lamentable proof-positive that the apes don’t always live up to their pragmatic idealism but by and large, it sustains and empowers them, and is continuously employed, in marked contrast to humanity who remain riven by fractious, mutually-self destructive division.
Beyond this central philosophical core, Ceasar and his tribe, who are no longer the only intelligent apes in the village, there is the natural strength, agility and the empowering dynamics of the group, which see them survive a catastrophic event that all but wipes out the last of humanity’s North American resistance.
Hence the apes have both the best of their kind, and of ours, rising again and againto the sort of greatness humanity inadvertently rushes to relinquish at every turn; they also have their flaws however and these are emphasised too when needed, saving the chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos from some bizarre post-human hagiography.
Deftly engaging in much of the world-building that characterises the films of the late 1960s and early 1970s, War is a confident film, bolstered by the dizzyingly good score by Michael Giacchino which is at turns militaristic and stunningly, movingly beautiful, that balances its action set pieces with more ruminative moments with an easy aplomb.
It is also a lengthy film, clocking in at 140 minutes, that never once feels bloated or overdone, assigning as much time to its more quieter moments of personal introspection (mostly Caesar’s) as it does to its grander, more morally-questionable scenes.
War is, in many ways, an emotionally-resonant morality play writ large, a musing on what happens when the tables of dominance are reversed and humanity finds itself, uncustomarily, on the wrong side of history, fighting a losing battle with no hope of redemption.
Realised with intelligence, and winningly-told, with empathy and great heart, War is a fitting end to the Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy, ample evidence that blockbusters can be as thoughtful and profound as they are bombastically-rich and dramatic.
Quite where things go from here is anyone’s guess but at the film’s conclusion, which includes a Moses surveying the promised land moment for Caesar, we are left in no doubt who will inherit the earth; and it won’t be humanity who, by refusing to honour the many things that hitherto made it the most successful race to rule the planet, effectively seal their own fate, leaving the apes to rise to their eventual Charlton Heston-confronting dominance.