God and Man and The Planet of the Apes

By Tim Winterstein

Warning: Spoilers! If you haven’t seen the film and plan to, you may want to postpone reading this until afterward.

In light of last week’s post, I hesitate to make too much out of my movie of the week, War for the Planet of the Apes. That is to say, you need find nothing particularly meaningful in the movie to enjoy it. Not only is it a great conclusion to Rise and Dawn, War is certainly the best of the three films. The story is complex and well-paced. In the few scenes where the story slows and feels like it might get bogged down, it is saved by raw emotion or humor (such as Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape). The CGI on the apes is astoundingly good, particularly with Caesar and Maurice. There’s nothing mechanical or unrealistic about them.

The following, then, are simply some observations of my own, which you may take or leave as you wish. (But isn’t that true of every opinion? Take it or leave it. It won’t hurt to simply ignore something you don’t like. I promise.) I welcome additions or subtractions to my interpretations.

It strikes me, first of all, that the film refuses to be simplistic about any of its characters or sides. There is no one righteous, not even one. But neither is there anyone who is purely evil. Even Woody Harrelson’s Colonel, though clearly the villain, has come to his conclusions and convictions based on his own experiences. Even so, his character is based on the template of every 20th century dictator: utilize religious imagery and ritual, along with a healthy dose of fear of “them” and the absolute righteousness of the cause. Such a combination justifies nearly anything—in fact, it requires sacrifices that people would not otherwise make.

The first third of the film is clearly set up (following the end of Dawn) to pit the slowly humanizing apes against the slowly dehumanizing humans. Caesar’s speech grows clearer and clearer, while a further consequence of the “simian flu” is that the humans are losing their speech. But that loss of speech isn’t necessarily proof that all humans are devolving—even though the location of the line between human and beast is a major theme in all three movies. The young, mute girl that Maurice refuses to leave behind becomes the hope for a new humanity, gaining from an automobile insignia the name Nova.

But Caesar is the hero of the films—played brilliantly underneath the motion capture CGI by Andy Serkis—who, nevertheless, struggles with his own guilt, revenge, and leadership. But he becomes sort of a Moses-like character, as he finally leads his “people” out of danger to what appears to be a land of promise. Like Moses, he is prevented (by an arrow) from actually living in the land; he only gets to sit above and look over the joy of the other apes as they enter the land.

The continually overlapping and conflicting motivations of the characters keep you from whole-heartedly rooting for either side. But there certainly is a warning to humans, who—intentionally or unintentionally—seem to seek out mutual destruction. The horror under the surface in the Apes films, as in many of Michael Crichton’s novels, is that humans may very easily achieve scientific advances, the consequences of which they cannot see or control. The caution that should go without saying, but often needs to be said, is that just because we can control or change aspects of creation doesn’t mean we always should. There is a very real (and very old) temptation to desire to be like unto God. But since we are not God, we often end up with something very different than we originally thought we wanted.

This is the striking thing about the first film: everything that happens is set in motion by a desire of a son to heal his father’s dementia. It’s not hard to make connections between that and the speed at which medical progress continues to proceed. Whether the technology is there or only promised, we are very good at covering over the dangers that might be inherent in progressing based on perceived good motivations and emotional sentiment. In the end, only Nova is left, after an avalanche destroys all the people who appear in the film. Whether she is the last of her kind remains unanswered.

This Apes trilogy is the best example of how to take already existing films, reconsider them, and use modern technology to achieve what couldn’t be done in 1968. Whether you want to think about what it might mean, or simply enjoy a well-told story, I recommend War for the Planet of the Apes.