This latest simian epic could be entitled ‘Apes of Wrath’ so angry are the aboreal primates at the way we treat them. What you see in this entertaining – if man killing ape and ape killing man can be described as enjoyable science fiction – is a Hollywood confession on behalf of humankind. We’ve been and are nasty to the lower orders of all species, apes too. It’s payback time, brother Gibbon!
On the other hand, depending on your politics, you might just see this as an offensive montage of white man against black man. Or you can interpret these films and others like it as our nihilistic longing for the end of the world.
The plot is Avatar all over again, which was Little Big Man all over again, but with blue Indians; a human identifies with the underdogs and switches sides – in this case a mute child, Nova, played by Amiah Miller. If you discount the female chimps there are no women in the story, this is a man’s film, primate soldiers and human soldiers.
I got immersed in the Apes Go Ape franchise ever since I visited the Canary Islands and saw the jagged terrain for myself where Charlton Heston ‘The Chest’ made the original. The final plot twist where he sinks his knees before a crippled Statue of Liberty on the shoreline, beating the ground with his fists, (a mock-up on a beach near Santa Monica) is an image in the hall of fame of all-time greats.
The original series seemed to me a far more versatile vehicle to map human progress its cruelties and stupidities than Tarzan and the apes. Tarzan swinging through the jungle trees as an Etonian refugee has an element of the risible about it. This series has slyly switched bad ape to good ape, and man as the predator – see Arnie and Terminator. We accept we have become the savage hunter. There is no scenes of apes eating flesh, as chimpanzees actually do in the wild to supplement their diet. They eat grain.
Today we have the infinite realities of digital magic in place of prosthetic make up stuck on actors, and blue screen instead of location shots. Versatility has becomes absolute plausibility, plus Andy Serkis.
But there’s an even bigger difference between the original and this summer’s offering, War for the Planet of the Apes. The first is all light, set in sunshine, this one is all dark, and cold, set in a dystopian world where man and chimp are forced to survive.
This film has a sub-Christian narrative, and it isn’t pleasant. It’s called The Rapture. The Rapture offers a ‘known’ future you don’t have to create yourself. It happens in an instant: before you’re done with one life, you’re whisked into another. Try and imagine you’re welfare reliant JK Rowling scribbling an idea for a children’s book on a café napkin, and the next you’re living in a £2 million mansion in a leafy suburb of a capital city with gazillions in banks and loadsa property. It’s a bit like that.
The Rapture includes English dumping darkest Europe to rush to an idealised past of rolling Malvern hills and Elgarian melodies. Life then will be peaceful.
War for the Planet of the Apes takes over a few years after Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – I almost typed Shaun of the Apes. The story line is highly derivative.
Each succeeding segment is a riff from a better film. It begins as Ghetto of the Apes, moves to Raiders of the Lost Apes, Revenge of the Apes, Revenant of the Apes, Silence of the Apes, the Apes of Auschwitz, Apocalypse of the Apes, and finally Moses the Ape. Somewhere in the middle there’s Little Annie Ape. Though set in the future there are no iPhones, hence we are spared Planet of the Apps.
Some sort of Simian flu appears to be killing off humans, other humans are rendered dumb yet survive the virus. Apes are hyper-intelligent. They are capable of complicated sign language, talking in perfect grammatical sentences, reading basic literature, and can communicate with mute people.
A battalion of solders are briefed to find the last of the apes and wipe them out. The rest of the story is how the apes overcome Armageddon. Caesar is still the leader, (Andy Serkis) a chimpanzee that orang-utan, gorilla, chimp, in fact all monkeys except those without tails respect and acknowledge as a great general.
And on the subject of loss, there’s not a genital in sight. This is odd because there’s lots of little baby chimps everywhere.
Some of the larger primates are turncoats, they work for the white man in the same way some American Indians worked for the union Army as slaves and scouts. They are Tonto to the Lone Ranger, pyramid builder 348 to the Pharaoh, but with a conscience.
It’s well-nigh impossible to pick out actors to praise or criticise for so many are a computer generated image of an ape. Andy Serkis stand out as a gifted translator of the craft of motion capture technology. His every nuance, his every expression is conveyed by the boys in graphic animation superbly. Ever since playing the wicked Gollum-Sméagol in Lord of the Ring Serkis has matured into the indisputable master of the technique. The other actors new to it must owe him a lot for paving the way.
Leading the humans is the messianic – well, almost – Colonel (Woody Harrelson), who inspires a mindless devotion from his soldiers while wearing shades even at night. Unfortunately Harrison is not up to the role. In fact, his sub-Brando as Colonel Kurtz is embarrassing. To make matters worse he’s given long speech of exposition. We want to be elsewhere. It’s a wonder his faceless, well-disciplined horde of obedient soldiers don’t jeer and walk off home.
Meanwhile, Caesar also is wrestling with his darker side, represented here by his visions of Koba (Toby Kebbell), the bitter, bellicose bonobo who in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes helped engineer the escalating enmity between apes and men. If you’ve not seen that earlier film you won’t have an inkling what it is that is upsetting Caesar.
War for the Planet of the Apes is unrelentingly depressing, with the welcome addition of humour offered by a Jar-Jar clownish Chimp called Bad Ape played by Steve Zahn.
This and the last two Apes films were directed by Matt Reeves. He has a teen-vampire drama to his name, the remake of the Swedish vampire thriller Let the Right One In. The direction and ape-like acting are all terrific, but the film is so dark and so bleak you feel you should have watched in wearing a Parka, hood up. And it’s an hour too long.
Photography and effects are fine, but each set scene is really a variation of a torture technique. Michael Giaccina’s score moves the drama along as it should, adding tension at the right moments.
This movie’s narrative is a warning to us. The morality police have our names. They are telling us that we live in the end of times, and we don’t need a passing meteorite to hit us to achieve it. Anybody preaching tolerance and light is the anti-Christ. I’ve met only two people in my life, a Californian couple, who believe in the Rapture. Both had dead eyes.
Science fiction or Hollywood commerce, this film is another unconsciously motivated by the Christian creed of the Rapture – we shall be delivered up to a better place away from all those evil, hairy non-believer monsters. Do you think we are unable to create that on Earth? Where’s David Attenborough when you need him?
- Star rating: three
- Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn
- Director: Mark Reeves
- Writer: Mark Bombak, Mark Reeves
- Cinematography: Michael Seracin
- Music: Michael Giaccina
- Duration: 2 hours 20 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: Excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: Crap; why did they bother?