Like many other viewers, I was pleasantly surprised when Rise of the Planet of the Apes turned out to be a well-crafted science fiction film that explored some legitimate questions about non-human sentience and the ethics of using animals for medical research. I wasn’t surprised with Andy Serkis’s amazing performance, because we already had ample evidence that whether live action or mocap, he’s a fantastic actor. It was the promise of another great Andy Serkis performance that initially drew me to the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and I was again surprised that it was not just on par with Rise, but one of the best films I saw in 2014.
After Dawn, I was on board for the next chapter, especially with the same team behind the wheel. From the trailers, it seemed like War for the Planet of the Apes would deliver on the set-up at the end of Dawn, where the promise of peaceful coexistence has been broken and there will now be a conflict from which only one society – humans or apes – will emerge intact. Reviews buoyed my anticipation, with a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes as of the publishing of this post. When I finally got around to seeing the film, its complete failure to deliver against these expectations makes it the most disappointing film I’ve seen this year. So much so that I felt the need to write about it.
[Major spoiler warning for War for the Planet of the Apes in particular, but also the previous recent Planet of the Apes films.]
Where is the war?
The end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes represents a seismic shift in the dynamics of the world of the story. We’ve gone from a situation in which the surviving human enclaves and the nascent ape society are completely ignorant of each other’s existence, to the recognition that all-out war is inevitable. Caesar articulates this in his last conversation with Malcolm, “Ape started war, and humans will not forgive.” Then it’s released that the title of the next film will be War for the Planet of the Apes. Then the trailer drops, showing substantial military activity and Woody Harrelson’s Colonel articulating the existential nature of the conflict between humans and apes. The film even opens with soldiers patrolling through the forest and conducting a raid on an ape outpost. That’s followed by another brief raid in which the apes realize their hideout is compromised, and which results in the killing of Caesar’s wife and older son, Blue Eyes, by the Colonel.
The film then becomes something of a road movie, as Caesar sets out to track down the Colonel to get his revenge, with three companions from the last movie who unfortunately don’t do much. Along the way, they pick up a human girl who suffers from the latest iteration of the simian flu, which renders people unable to speak. This is a nice callback to the original film, where George Taylor’s ability to speak was unique among humans, and a huge plot point, but I found it underdeveloped in War.
Once Caesar’s group locates the Colonel, he discovers that his entire tribe has been captured and is being used for slave labor. Before long, Caesar himself is also captured, and the film becomes a POW/prison break movie. Eventually, the escape coincides with another raid, this time by another human army who has arrived to take out the Colonel. There are a few explosions, some rockets, and some gunfire, but the battle feels less intense and less consequential than the battle sequences in Dawn because the stakes are never made clear to us.
That final battle serves no real purpose in the story. None of the main characters play major roles: the battle is between two groups of faceless humans and the apes just happen to be there. When the battle breaks out, the Colonel is already incapacitated and the apes’ escape from the camp is already mostly completed. Essentially, the battle occurs after the conflict of the story has already been resolved, rather than being the means through with resolution is reached.
Because of these issues, the viewer has little reason to invest in the outcome of the battle. Compare this to the battle scenes in Dawn. By the time the fighting starts, we’ve spent significant time with both the human characters and the apes. We know them, and what they stand to lose if they lose the fight. The final confrontation between Caesar and Koba is an ideological clash between fully-realized characters with histories and perspectives that recognizably inform their views and actions, and the outcome has the potential to determine the course of ape society and its relationship to the remnants of human society. The resolution of the fight is the resolution of the central conflict.
About those characters…
War for the Planet of the Apes has just about zero character development. Perhaps the filmmakers were relying on all the development from Rise and Dawn, which is no excuse, but here Caesar is reduced to the kind of one-dimensional unthinking brute that humans in both the previous films so often made the mistake of believing these apes to be. True, his wife and son were killed, so one might think it reasonable for him to be consumed by vengeance, but Rise and Dawn made it clear that Caesar is able – even if he struggles with it – to put his emotions to the side and do the right thing for the tribe. That’s what makes him a great leader. The fact that he is so single-minded in War undermines all the development of his character in the previous films. It might have worked if they had taken care to show the evolution of Caesar as he gradually become consumed and corrupted by vengeance, but that’s a tougher task and a darker route than I think they were prepared to take on.
Aside from Caesar, the only other notable characters are Woody Harrelson’s Colonel and Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape.
The Colonel is set up via the trailers and the first part of the film as the leader of the human military waging a war for survival against the apes, but turns out to be a quasi-Kurtz-like figure who’s gone rogue with what seems like a single company of fanatical followers. We don’t know much about him or his motivations until a clumsy scene where he summons a now-captive Caesar so that he can dump exposition on him. In this scene, we learn that seeing the effects of the latest manifestation of the simian flu, which causes muteness but apparently nothing more serious, sent him off the deep end to the point where he decided to murder all his infected soldiers and go on the run. It affects him so deeply that when he becomes infected and loses his voice, he feels that death is the only option. It’s also never clear what his mission is. At the beginning of the film, he seems to be focussed on killing Caesar. When he fails at that, he seems to give up and settle for capturing the apes and using them as slaves to fortify his camp.
Bad Ape seems to fill two functions: comic relief and as a plot device to lead Caesar to the Colonel’s camp. In some ways, he resembles Gollum in The Two Towers – a reluctant guide to lead the main characters to the enemy camp they seek (he even looks a bit like the original, pre-Andy Serkis design for Gollum). But as is par for the course in this film, he lacks depth. He is funny, and a lot of the people in my screening laughed out loud at all his antics, but it’s never explained why he speaks English so well; at least as well as Caesar, despite the fact that he was just a zoo animal whereas Caesar was given an experimental drug and lived as James Franco’s surrogate child for most of his life.
Rounding out the roster are a few apes from the previous film, a new ape named Lake who seems to have some sort of special friendship with Blue Eyes, and the aforementioned speechless girl (who turns out to be Nova, in another callback to the original film), and a crossbow-wielding soldier. All of these characters are basically just along for the ride and at best play utilitarian roles in getting Caesar closer to his goal, or in the case of the soldier popping up every once in awhile to obstruct Caesar’s quest.
Once again, compare this to Dawn, where we have a large group of fairly well-developed characters. On the human side, we have Malcolm and his son and girlfriend, Ellie, a family cobbled together in the wake of the simian flu apocalypse, and Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus, an old military guy doing his best to build a new community. On the ape side, we have Caesar and Koba representing competing visions of ape society, Blue Eyes’s struggle to decide whether to follow his father or his surrogate uncle, and Maurice has a nice little arc with Malcolm’s son, signifying the potential for peaceful coexistence.
As the credits rolled on War for the Planet of the Apes, I was left with an empty feeling. I didn’t learn anything new about the characters. The state of the world had not really changed. No war for the planet of the apes had been waged. I can’t help but think that the filmmakers didn’t really know where to take the story after the conclusion of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. What we got was a half-baked shadow of the previous films, with a thin story and no character development, and not even much great action. Given the track record of the series and the filmmaking team, I was expecting something pretty great, but what I got made me think the story was best left where Dawn ended.