Monday 8 February 2021

Your Move, Darwin #11: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

(Spoilers. Always, spoilers.)

Cultural historians of the future will probably have no hesitation in recognising that cinema in the second decade of the 21st century was the high point of the Franchise Genre Blockbuster. A flood of Marvel and DC superhero movies; five new Star Wars movies; four Hunger Games movies; five Fast and Furious movies; a couple more Terminator movies; four more Transformers movies. And of course, there were more Bond movies (there have always been more Bond movies). Failed, super-expensive attempts to kick off franchises abounded, with Luc Besson’s good-hearted but chemistry-free attempt to bring French comicbook legends Valerian and Laureline to the screen flopping catastrophically, and ready-planned sure-thing multimillion-dollar franchises based around King Arthur and the Universal Monsters getting themselves cancelled on the spot thanks to movies that were frankly crappy enough that audiences noticed. Every studio was looking for a property to resurrect: indeed, the Rocky, Rambo, Alien(s), Mad Max, Predator and Jurassic Park series all came back, and the long-running Toho Kaiju series – home to Godzilla, Rodan and Kong – got a monster American relaunch. Why wouldn’t they have another pop at rebooting one of the most successful sci-fi movie franchises of the past? They did it with pretty much all the others.

I’m not the first to observe that the titles of the Planet of the Apes reboots are a bit wonky. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a film about the dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes had a war for the Planet of the Apes in it, explicitly flagged in dialogue. And it’s fair to say that War for the Planet of the Apes is really about the ultimate rise of the Planet of the Apes. Even the final film itself seems implicitly to admit this, explaining how each of the films supplies a Rise, a Dawn and a War in an opening crawl. I do not know if this is true, but I have this guess that they came up with the titles, pitched the movies and announced the return of the franchise before having a script. In the same way that Paul Dehn was long ago sent off to write another one with the terse words “apes exist” (and by the way knocked it out of the proverbial park), I would guess that the writers of these new movies got sent off to produce a bible and create scripts after the titles were settled. The initial thought behind these films was plainly “Hey, I guess we should make some more Planet of the Apes movies.”

All of this makes it so much more of a surprise – for me, anyway, with my at best ambivalent attitude to Hollywood blockbusters – that the new Planet of the Apes movies actually turned out to range from OK, to pretty good, to phenomenal. The first one had its problems, and the second one wasn’t nearly as interesting and strange as it could have been, but the potential was there for something special. 

The Planet of the Apes films have often fallen short of their potential. Wonderful, bonkers ideas in the series often come out half-baked, or with troubling unintentional subtexts. Arguably, aside from Escape from the Planet of the Apes, which I won’t hear a word against, I don’t think that before War there has been a sequel in the series that doesn't have a serious flaw somewhere. I adore these films, but often it’s been as much for what they could have been. But it’s also been the sheer perversity of them, the way in which they get you to root for the collapse of human civilisation, and do it without misanthropy, that keeps bringing me back. Ironically, these are very human movies. 

War for the Planet of the Apes, again directed by Matt Reeves, has a lot of war film tropes – mainly tropes from one specific war film, but a little more on that later – but it really isn’t what you’d call a war film. It picks up a couple of years after Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is over, and the situation has worsened. The military force that Dreyfus contacted (shortly before blowing himself to kingdom come for no good reason) has come south. Caesar (Andy Serkis again) and his apes, realising that they can’t win, retreat further into the forest. We begin with the soldiers, their helmets bearing scrawled Alpha-Omega symbols and slogans like MONKEY KILLER. They’re accompanied by a large black ape, who we learn is a follower of Koba who defected to the human side after Koba’s defeat, which I guess means that they’re engaging in the single most obvious joke it is possible for me to make here.

They repel the attackers, but they’re betrayed, and the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) himself comes to kill Caesar by night. In fact, he kills Caesar’s wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) and his elder son Blue Eyes (Max Lloyd-Jones). Caesar sends the apes on the run, and leaves the column of simian refugees while he goes on a mission to hunt down the Colonel and end it. Although he is reluctant to have company, he is nonetheless joined by his friends orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), chimp Rocket (Terry Notary), and gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). But Caesar’s mission of revenge goes very awry from the beginning.

As Caesar travels in search of the elusive Colonel, he and his friends discover that the military forces they face represent something darker and stranger. A series of hermeneutic clues arises, allowing the viewer to work out the truth at the same pace as Caesar. They find a deserter, who they wind up killing, only to discover that he has a little girl with him (Amiah Miller), who for some reason cannot speak. The dying soldier, left for dead in the snow, one of a neatly arranged row of corpses, cannot speak either; he joins his comrades swiftly as the apes watch. They have been shot by their own men. The little girl comes with them; later Maurice will call her Nova, a nod to the first non-speaking human female in the Planet of the Apes films.

By the time they catch up with the Colonel’s men, Luca is dead and Caesar and his friends discover that they have already found the larger body of apes and have imprisoned and enslaved them, forcing them to build fortifications. Because these men and women, supposedly the surviving bastion of the human race, are in trouble.

The Colonel has discovered that the ALZ-113 virus has mutated, and that now humans who catch the new strain lose their cognitive abilities, primarily their ability to process language. They become as the apes were, even as the apes become as humans. In many of the previous movies, it’s the utterance that frames and escalates conflict:

Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape! (three times)
But I loathe bananas!
Lousy human bastards!
And the simple word, No!

But here, it’s not the case. Here, it’s the denial of utterance, the transfer of the right of verbalisation from human to ape. This is made a bit more explicit with the character of Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a lonely survivor from a zoo who they meet along the way. Bad Ape can only speak. He doesn’t understand the sign language of Caesar’s tribe, and along with the anorak and woolly hat he affects to survive the cold, this makes him a sort of evolution of the apes. He’s where the apes are going. Language is their future.

Bad Ape is inevitably a comic relief character, but here too that’s subverted, for Bad Ape’s comedy comes from tragedy. He’s the way he is because he was at first abused and then abandoned. His has been a life of deprivation and loneliness. And the way in which the apes are better than both action movie clichés and in fact humans lies in how they respond to him, with camaraderie and (somewhat exasperated) patience. We, the viewers, may find Bad Ape annoying (for what it’s worth, I don’t. I think he’s charming). But the apes patiently deal with his foibles, as in the scene where Caesar’s comrades are taking turns looking down over the military camp through binoculars, and Bad Ape cries out in dismay because everything is very small, and Maurice just lets out a deep sigh and turns the binoculars around for him. It’s really a character moment Maurice has deserved for two movies, and one of the many great things about War for the Planet of the Apes is that it's by no means the only one. This is a film where the characters generally get some space to be characters. There aren't any real female characters – the silent little girl excepted – but what characters there are do seem to get the space they deserve.

The Colonel’s solution to the inevitable extinction of human civilisation is fascism. It’s extermination of the infected – including, we discover, his own son – and the radicalisation of his troops into those willing to murder their own rather than have their purity be compromised. They sing a national anthem for a country that no longer exists. They treat the Colonel like a messiah. They scream militaristic slogans in rallies where their leader stands on a flag-bedecked podium and yells meaningless platitudes at them. 

Officer: Blood!
Troops: Makes the grass grow!
Officer: We!
Troops: Make the blood flow!
Officer: We are the beginning!
Troops: And the end!

Here is where War for the Planet of the Apes gets phenomenally good. It not only pays respect to its predecessors, but brings something new to the table. We've tackled animal rights, civil rights, and the way religious and governmental structures manipulate the truth. And now, finally, Planet of the Apes looks at fascism. Given when it was released, it would be easy to assume that this is about fascism in America in 2017. But it isn't.

It’s not just that the portrayal of the Colonel and his soldiers aren’t a partisan comment on Trumpism, they cannot be, because the timing of the film makes it impossible. Yes, the film had been showing in cinemas for a few weeks when the deadly confrontations in Charlottesville were happening, but that’s no more than a timely coincidence. In fact, principal filming for the movie began in October 2015, and the script was presumably more or less finished some time before that.

This is not a movie that is specifically about whatever you think about Trump or the alt-right or whatever. It makes more general points about fascism than that. 

For instance. Fascists are obsessed with flags, but make a point of either perverting flags or making their own. They pay lipservice to patriotism: and front and centre in the Colonel's camp is an American flag with an Alpha and Omega scrawled on it.

In the U.S. Code, the general and permanent laws of the United States of America, Title 4, § 8. Respect for flag, reads:

(g) The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature. 

There are lots of other things in that code that put American expressions of patriotism in a weird sort of context, in fact. Did you know that in the USA it’s illegal to use a US flag as a T-shirt design, a duvet cover, napkins, or in any part of your business logo? It’s almost as if the people who weaponise the flag – as they so often do with the Union Flag and the Flag of St. George over here – don’t actually care about it half as much as they say they do, and certainly not nearly as much as they do for the ends to which it is used.

But so it is with the Colonel (his badge says his name is McCullough, but he's never once named in dialogue) and his men. Easily replicated symbols are part of the fascist armoury, the sorts of things that an angry teenage boy can graffiti on a wall or carve into a school desk, or tattoo on himself with a hot pin and the ink from a disassembled Biro. The Alpha/Omega, aside from being a neat callback to the bomb-worshipping mutants of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, here has been repurposed as a fascist symbol, scrawled everywhere and tattooed and branded on the soldiers and their ape slaves.

The fascist love of labels and slurs is also important here, the way they have demeaning names for the people they hate. Here, you see it in how they refer to the apes they’ve pressed into service “Donkey” and the ones they’re fighting as “Kong”. It’s demeaning and it’s supposed to be. And there’s also the Nintendo reference for some added spice and, lest we forget, in 2015 when this film was being made, one of the prime recruiting vectors for the hard right was among radicalised video game nerds (and the further in time we get from that, the harder it becomes to parse that as a phenomenon, frankly).

The Donkeys themselves are a really key point. These are apes who, we are told, followed Koba, and who for whatever reason went over to the Colonel’s side. The film doesn’t go into how this happened, but the subtext is that mistakes were made; these radicalised apes hate and fear Caesar, and let’s be honest, Caesar and his loyalists weren’t going to want them around.

Koba’s followers operated originally on an exterminationist agenda with respect to humans; the Colonel and his men operate with a similarly final intention towards the apes. How, then, are they working together? But of course it makes perfect sense. In fascist regimes this is exactly what happens. They recruit groups of people who should be violently opposed to them because they are able to weaponise hate, to mobilise people who should hate them to fight with them against groups they hate more. We are the enemies of your enemy, they say. The Second World War had tons of occasions where this happened, most famously in the case of  the volunteer SS divisions who included people who absolutely shouldn’t have been fighting for the Nazis in any sensible world. Some of them were even on the Nazis’ agenda for extermination, such as the brigade of Finnish Jews who fought on the German side because they hated the Communists more.

Alliances are complex things and the ways that factions form often defy ideology.

The other thing that the Colonel does, before exterminating the apes – and extermination is definitely on the cards – is to put them to work. And everything in the way that the conditions the apes are subject to are framed suggests the logic of the concentration camp. They are worked to death. And the warders who supply their food directly and impose the lowest level of discipline are the Donkeys, their own, who collude in the abuse of their kind because their conditions are better. This too has historical precedent. People have done this (and not just Germans and Americans – it's far too convenient to forget that the concentration camp is a British invention).

Unlike in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, where the civil rights movement is explicitly called out as an inspiration in dialogue, leading to a bunch of deeply troubling unintentional subtexts, the image of the concentration camp here stays a general image. This is not a direct metaphor for Naziism, any more than it is for what went on in Charlottesville on the summer of its release. This is a general portrayal of the consequences of fascism. Fascism here is given an American spin, but there's no real America left in this film. In War for the Planet of the Apes, fascism is simply human.

The main thing the apes are put to work on in the camp is a wall, and again, it's so very tempting to compare certain factions who were very keen on building walls at about the time this movie was released, but again it's a timely coincidence and nothing more. It's not the wall that's the issue, it's what the wall is supposed to keep out.

Which is of course the army. War for the Planet of the Apes has as its villains a brutal military presence, and there are no real “good guy” soldiers, but it's not a film that is really about soldiers being evil. It’s about bad soldiers being evil. The Colonel doesn’t really have a mandate. He’s gone rogue.

And make no mistake, the Colonel’s men are bad soldiers, because they have a terrible leader. The more you look at the Colonel’s strategy, the worse it seems. The camp, as it’s positioned, is a terrible place to have a last stand. Murdering your own men en masse is a terrible way to lead a force. But it's on brand. Nothing the Colonel does really seems sustainable.

The Colonel thinks he is rational. He berates Caesar for being emotional, for taking personally the murder of his wife and son, as if that is somehow a flaw or an error or other than natural and right, and screams at Caesar while he’s doing it. Once again, this is quintessentially a fascist act: right from the very beginning, fascists have always framed their urge to bigotry, tyranny and eventually murder as “rational”, as “logical”, as “common sense”. They spout nonsense about the facts not caring about your feelings, failing to see how utterly indifferent the facts are to their own feelings. They are rational and sensible, even while they're screaming their lungs out and delivering insanely excessive punishments. Even while they can't keep a plan going past their own short-term agenda.

And again, it’s exactly how this works! Because the fact is, fascists are really not good at long-term strategy. Fascism isn’t an ideology that really cares about anything beyond making specific things happen as soon as possible, any way they can happen. Fascism is an ideology of results. And in the short term, fascists get results, through the simple fact that they steamroll past any rules, niceties, social contracts or ethical qualms that get in their way.

What this means is that fascism generally works brilliantly until it just doesn't, because competence is also secondary to immediate results. A fascist regime rarely lasts long beyond the death or removal of its established leader, and yeah, certainly you could find examples of similar regimes that lasted beyond that, every one of them is sort of an edge case that you can argue doesn’t really count. Real fascism carries with it a personality cult, one that’s sort of messianic, even.

War for the Planet of the Apes attaches its notional messianic villain to a bunch of signifiers that lead you to compare him with that other significant shaven-headed rogue Colonel in American cinema, namely Brando’s Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now (1979). And of course Colonel Kurtz is based on Mr Kurtz, the cult-leading colonialist in Heart of Darkness, but that's secondary here. Several shots and images from the older movie are echoed and referenced in War for the Planet of the Apes, and the real giveaway is the part where the protagonist apes are creeping through the tunnels under the camp to get in and find a wall graffitied with the words APE-OCALYPSE NOW. But it goes deeper than that. In Apocalypse Now, there's a scene where Kurtz describes his unit, before having gone wrong, giving vaccinations to the inhabitants of a Vietnamese village and discovering later that the Viet Cong had come along and forcibly amputated the arms of everyone who had been injected. It’s a powerful enough idea for many people to think to this day that it’s based on a real event (it’s not), but the moment of clarity it represents is clearly the inspiration for the moment where the Colonel describes killing the victims of the new version of the pandemic, including his own son (there's a deleted scene where the Colonel freely admits to having killed Malcolm and, presumably, his family too). The moment of gazing into the abyss and having it gaze back is vitally important for the purpose of showing the Colonel’s descent – and Caesar’s response to it.

Just as in Apocalypse Now, the Colonel has a fanatical henchman. Here, played by Gabriel Chavarria, he is a muted figure, a soldier who carries a crossbow rather than a gun. A believer, he is of course called Preacher.

But Caesar does not follow the trajectory of the older film, or indeed of most action heroes. As the new Planet of the Apes movies have progressed, he has aged. His fur is grey. He has grown tired. 

Caesar’s revenge mission doesn’t go as planned. A human action hero walks away from an explosion; Caesar runs like mad and gets to cover. A human action hero shrugs off injuries with gritted teeth; but Caesar keeps every scar, feels every bruise and cut, and will eventually die from his injuries after the danger has passed. He is mortal.

And his mortality is just one of many ways in which the film defies action movie clichés. Caesar’s revenge stalls, and he can't commit murder for murder when faced with a helpless, humiliated foe. The unspeaking child and the tragic clown are both embraced by the apes and both play their unknowing part in the downfall of the human race. It's the most perverse thing imaginable, a big budget action movie where the viewer is expected to root for the annihilation of the human race. The final cathartic moment of violence in the film is nature’s violence: yes, the real army comes down to deliver the wrath of God on the Colonel and his creatures, but they’re all swept away by an apocalyptic avalanche caused by an explosion in the Colonel’s camp. The apes escape by doing a thing that no human could – darting up into trees. This isn't the only time they achieve things by doing things a human can’t or won't do, and sometimes that’s pretty funny, such as when the escape from the camp starts with some good old fashioned chimp poo flinging.

Many popcorn movies want you to accept the weight of a character’s life and death… but they rarely earn it. But War for the Planet of the Apes earns its hero’s passing, as, tired and bleeding, he collapses, unseen by any of his jubilant people except Maurice. More than any other popcorn movie of its era, War for the Planet of the Apes allows its apes to be apes, but equally it allows its protagonist to be human.

It's so unlike other films of its type. The music has a melancholy, contemplative tone and the images take their time to pass by. Significance is placed on small things: a ragdoll, a cherry blossom.

It really is a phenomenal, perverse piece of work, and finally, right at the end of the series, we get a work that sweeps away the human race and its crimes and invites you to cheer.And again we’re at a point where the series begins. The Planet of the Apes is ready for Space Gulliver to land, navigate a world that isn’t so topsy turvy as it seems, and find the Statue of Liberty.

Postscript of the Planet of the Apes

In 2019, Disney bought Fox and almost immediately announced that there would be more Planet of the Apes movies. That has been at best delayed, if not cancelled altogether. There isn't really an irony in a pandemic putting the kibosh on many of the plans of the film industry since then, because you don't reduce to a rhetorical point something that caused hundreds of thousands of people to meet with avoidable deaths.

A lot of movies have been cancelled or postponed, and the fact is, I don't know if or when there's going to be another Planet of the Apes movie any time soon. But until a new one happens, there isn't a better place for the series to stop. War for the Planet of the Apes fulfilled its promise. It gave us something human.

Rankings of the Planet of the Apes:
1. Planet of the Apes (1968)
2. War for the Planet of the Apes
3. Escape from the Planet of the Apes
4. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
5. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
6. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
7. Beneath the Planet of the Apes
8. Return to the Planet of the Apes
9. Battle for the Planet of the Apes
10. Planet of the Apes (the TV series)
11. Planet of the Apes (2001)