The problem with this movie is not, as a reviewer at Variety suggested, being asked to root against your own species, it’s that I’ve already seen this movie a hundred times before. War for the Planet of the Apes is a morality tale, in which the humans are the bad guys – which isn’t new but it’s not exactly a cliché either (yet). And in a way, it was easy to root against the humans.
The entire plot was utterly predictable. I could tell you almost exactly how each character would react to each situation they found themselves in, not because they were particularly well-developed (which, credit where credit is due, they were) but because they were following tried and tested plot devices that I’ve seen time after time in this kind of film.
For some background on the movie, here’s the synopsis of the third instalment of the reboot – “Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson). After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind. As the journey finally brings them face to face, Caesar and the Colonel are pitted against each other in an epic battle that will determine the fate of both their species and the future of the planet.”
There is a twist, albeit not a terribly original one – the Colonel’s motivation is based on the death of his son at his own hands after he contracted a new strain of the Simian virus that almost wiped out humanity in the previous film. This version renders the infected speechless – a condition which the Colonel deems to be primitive and apelike.
This isn’t to say that I wasn’t able to become invested in the plot and the characters (I was) or that the movies wasn’t well-made and beautifully shot (it was). But there wasn’t anything here that I hadn’t seen before. Tropes and clichés abounded where I would have liked more originality. That said, War for the Planet of Apes doesn’t follow the humans and that is relatively new. It was kind of cool to see familiar plot devices and character types applied to a different species (although, even that isn’t entirely new – that’s basically what Disney does).
War for the Planet of the Apes is a soulful tearjerker which explores humankind’s shoot-first-forget-about-ever-asking-questions tendencies when dealing with the unknown or people who we define as “other”. It’s a gorgeous movie that explores the double-standards that characterize our approach to conflict – it’s fine for us to kill in self-defense but when our enemies do the same it’s an unforgivable offence.
The apes do this as well of course – to a certain extent, they’re modeled in our image – but they at least begin with a certain sense of idealism and hope, believing that if they spare the Colonel’s men, he will see that they just want to be left alone and that they do not want to fight.
This is also a movie about sentience – what constitutes a “primitive” and is that a bad thing to be? One of the apes makes friends with a little girl – who ultimately saves Caesar’s life – who has contracted the mutated strain of the virus. She is kind, caring and does not judge the apes for being non-human. Does the ability to speak and to think critically sentence us to a live of judgement, anger and mistrust? And will it ultimately be our downfall?
War for the Planet of the Apes is a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy (and the end will have you bawling in your seat, trust me). Neither the story, not the message it tries to hammer home is new but that doesn’t make it any less relevant or less engaging. I was still riveted to the action, despite being pretty sure that I knew what was going to happen next, and I still felt shame at the actions of the humans because I was so easily able to believe that what was happening onscreen could happen in real life if we found ourselves in that situation.
When I was thinking about writing this review, I found that I had mixed feelings about what I wanted to say. On one hand, I wanted to complain about the predictability and lack of original plot or characters. But on the other hand, I was reminded that there’s a reason we keep telling this story again and again and again. Because it never changes. Humanity never stops waging war and trying subjugate or exploit those that it deems “less”. So why should the story change? Why shouldn’t we keep talking about this?
If the goal of art is to reflect our world and our actions back to ourselves, to make us think critically about who we are and what we do, then War for the Planet of the Apes easily fulfills its purpose. And it’s funny, emotional and entertaining at the same time. Originality, it seems, is not the be all and end all of a good film – sometimes the familiar is good enough.