An interesting experiment would be to try and make a movie in which everything that happens is ridiculous to the point of comedy (like, say, a chimpanzee riding a horse with a shotgun strapped to its back), but is all presented in the most straight-forward, earnest, self-serious fashion. The result would be a sort of avant-garde experimental film, I suppose. It would also most definitely be a satire. There was some satire in the original Planet of the Apes movie, released almost fifty years ago. There is no satire in War for the Planet of the Apes. This is a serious movie. There is barely a laugh to be had, or a warm feeling to be felt. It is the most joyless summer blockbuster I have ever seen. It wants to be relevant and important. It is the movie equivalent of someone telling you to “eat your vegetables”, only it has never occurred to them that vegetables could taste good. In War for the Planet of the Apes, the more disgusting the vegetables are, the better they will be for you. This is a movie made by people who have wrongly equated seriousness with competence, and dullness with importance. By the time one of the apes gets brutally whipped in what is basically a concentration camp, the movie’s attempts at relevance have turned from tedious to grotesque. Not since Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland have I hated a movie this much. This is the polar opposite of good cinema. This movie is trash.
How did we come to this? How did we get to the point where a movie that is basically Schindler’s List starring a bunch of apes is a summer blockbuster with overwhelmingly positive reviews? Just before going to the movie, I watched the original Planet of the Apes for the first time since I was a kid. It feels like a movie from a complete different galaxy. The original movie plays like a longer Twilight Zone episode, in which an astronaut (played by Charlton Heston) crash-lands in a planet where apes rule and humans are treated like animals (in fact, the script was co-written by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling). It’s a rather dubious allegory for exploring what it’s like to be an oppressed minority, but also a sincere and emotionally effective attack on rigid, unthinking societies. All these years later, one can still feel the immense frustration of Heston’s character trying to be treated equally and thoughtfully by a council of stuck-up apes. It’s a pretty effective movie, and one that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s the kind of movie in which an ape says something like: “well, you know what they say: human see, human do…”
That original movie was followed by a number of increasingly ridiculous and more overtly political sequels, including Escape from the Planet of the Apes, in which a couple ape characters from the original movie travel to the 1970s in an overt satire about race relations. Watching some of those low-budget sequels you will get a sense for the reputation the Apes movies had when I first encountered them as a child. They were goofy. Coming into the new millennium, a time in which movie studios will attempt to build franchises out of every once-successful property, the Apes franchise was remodeled into something that would more closely resemble a modern blockbuster. Except that the first film in this new franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was anything but a typical blockbuster. It flashed back to the origins of the series, and focused on a chimp named Caesar (played through performance capture technology by Andy Serkis), who is experimented on and becomes the first intelligent ape. He realizes the horrible way in which apes are treated by humanity and organizes a small rebellion. It feels more like a mix of a “magic animal” and a “prison escape” movie than a blockbuster. It’s like a mix of Pete’s Dragon and The Great Escape. It’s a good movie.
One of the cool things about Rise of the Planet of the Apes was how neatly and effectively it inverted the situation of the first movie. Caesar’s quest mirrors Charlton Heston’s quest in the original movie quite a bit. The zoo-like facilities in which they are held even look similar. One smart human in a world of apes was flipped into one smart ape in a world of humans. And it worked. The metaphor, regardless of whether you think it’s an appropriate one, still tracks. What’s more, the movie feels like its own unique beast. The second movie in this new franchise, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, on the other hand, feels very much like a regular blockbuster. And a pretty boring one at that. It has a few cool ideas about what it’d be like for a bunch of intelligent apes to start a new society, but abandons them in favor of big action and cheap villains. And so, we come to War for the Planet of the Apes, which doesn’t quite feel like a regular blockbuster, but only because this level of bleakness is usually reserved for the most masochistic of European auteurs. The movie’s main interest is not on big action and cheap villains, it wants to be something more. It wants to be important.
What is the metaphor in War for the Planet of the Apes? What is the movie about? It focuses, again, on Caesar as he tries to protect the small ape civilization that’s developed in the last few years from an evil human Colonel (Woody Harrelson), who is intent on wiping those disgusting apes off the map once and for all. The Colonel attacks the ape village, and then a bunch of convoluted things happen, and the apes end up being captured. They are taken to the aforementioned concentration camp for apes, where they are treated horribly and forced to build a -you guessed it- wall. The movie is tightly focused on the point of view of the apes, but the clearest attempt at a metaphor seems to come from the human characters. I guess the movie is trying to portray an old and tired order trying to grasp at whatever faint power they have left, as a new generation marches forward. This would continue on the metaphor of apes as oppressed minorities while incorporating contemporary politics. A critique of white nationalism, I suppose. This is in and on itself not a bad idea for a movie. Genre film, after all, is one of the most fertile places for exploring big ideas and societal grievances. The problem is with the way in which the movie goes about its message.
Here’s a quick run-down of the kind of gruesome shit that happens in War for the Planet of the Apes (spoilers, I suppose): Caesar’s wife and family are brutally murdered by humans, Cesar has to mercy-kill a sick human, Caesar is haunted by the ghost of an ape he killed in the last movie, apes are crucified, there is a ape concentration camp where apes are horribly whipped, Caesar is taken to the concentration camp, whipped, and then crucified because he is -you guessed it- a Chris figure. And all of this happens with an unrelentingly somber and bleak tone. Are people supposed to enjoy watching this movie? Because if they are, then the people who made it are dark and twisted in their core. And if they are not supposed to enjoy it, then why make it in the first place? This movie is a relentless parade of misery, and what’s worse, all of its misery is predictable. Would you be surprised to learn there is a little mute girl who is rescued by our main apes, tags alone, and then cries when one of the apes is killed in battle. Will you believe that in the middle of this grimfest, there is a comedic relief chimp who talks funny in a Gollum-meets-Jar-Jar-Binks sort of way? I bet you can imagine how jarring it is when we cut from apes being tortured to this funny monkey saying a funny line.
That’s the thing about War for the Planet of the Apes. It’s so relentless in its seriousness that it becomes disrespectful. Let’s not kid ourselves. This is a blockbuster, designed to appeal to a massive audience and make a lot of money. Is this what constitutes entertainment? A movie with torture prison camps that evoke the Holocaust, Christ’s Passion, and the horrors of slavery? What about that, but with a bunch of computer generated apes at the center? This is movie is disrespectful. This movie is gross. I felt sick after watching it, wondering how can this movie exist. After some deep thinking, I’m convinced this is the perfect (if you can call it that) marriage between the idea that darkness equals importance with our current fascination with the aesthetics of realism. This movie is obsessed with realism. It is obsessed with having its apes look as close to real apes as possible. It is obsessed with having its gruesome battles be as close to real war as possible. But what’s the point?
The crude realism of War for the Planet of the Apes doesn’t make the movie feel any more emotionally real. The fact that its characters are boring and its plot full of cliches doesn’t help, but even then, realism doesn’t make a good movie. Movies are stories, and stories are fantasies. I don’t mean dragons and wizards. I mean the kind of mythic, essentially human storytelling that addresses the most crucial elements of life through a fictitious prism. The kind of storytelling narrative cinema is perfectly designed to tell. This movie is so obsessed with being realistic it leaves no room for fantasy, for imagination, for magic, for dreams. It forgets to be a movie. Whatever this is, it’s the opposite of cinema.