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COURTESY OF CHERNIN ENTERTAINMENT

August 22, 2017

Primate Philosophy and Gorilla Warfare

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After walking out of the theater, I was upset that War for the Planet of the Apes was billed as a summer blockbuster. On paper, the film meets the criteria: it has a big budget, CGI action sequences and notable stars. Yet in the midst of its noisy and spectacle-driven contemporaries, War for the Planet of the Apes stands awkwardly out of place. It boasts a quieter tale and seeks not simply to thrill but to instruct as well. The blockbuster appeal serves as an invitation to a wider audience, who are treated to a delightfully introspective film. To call War another summer flick would do a disservice to the cornucopia of themes it addresses; it is a gripping philosophical tale that exists not to be consumed quickly but to be digested slowly so that its commentary can change the world for the better.
War takes place a few years after Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, where most of humanity is extinct due to the Simian Flu, a virus that made the Earth’s primates hyper-intelligent and capable of speech. The remaining human forces led by the mysterious Colonel (Woody Harrelson) are at war with the apes and are searching for their leader, a chimpanzee named Caesar (Andy Serkis) who has evaded capture. After Caesar’s forces successfully defeat The Colonel’s fighters, Caesar sends the surviving soldiers back to The Colonel with a warning to leave the apes alone. The Colonel then responds with a vicious and swift attack against Caesar’s tribe. Angered, Caesar embarks on a pilgrimage of vengeance, while struggling with his inner demons of hatred, fear and grief along the road.
The title, War, is both misleading and clever; there are only a handful of action sequences throughout the film and thus the primary conflict lies in Caesar’s own struggle with the weight of his responsibility. He cares for his tribe and knows that if killing The Colonel could spell doom to his family, yet he cannot seem to quench his thirst for revenge. He strives to be better than the savage and cruel animal that his human enemies paint him to be, but doing so makes him vulnerable to critique and attack. The color palette, setting and score all reinforce this tension: War is bleak and dreary, depicting the world as unforgiving and broken and one where morals and beatudinal philosophies are outdated and ignorant. Taking place mostly in the winter, even the beautiful vibrancy of the snow-tipped landscape that Caesar treks across serves as both a symbol of peace that he wishes he could have in his own heart, while being a reminder of the cruel and cold reality before him.
To capture such Caesar’s emotional spectrum and idiosyncrasies would be difficult for any actor, yet Andy Serkis displays all of Caesar’s nuance and personality with poise and expertise. Having seen Serkis play the role of Caesar for three films, it is a travesty that motion-capture performances are not considered for Academy Awards nominations. Serkis transforms the character into a real individual, one whom viewers can empathize with. Likewise, the supporting cast give dynamic portrayals as well. Though orangutan Maurice does not speak, Karin Konoval communicates the character’s care and strength just through facial expressions. Steven Zahn’s “Bad Ape” who is a neophyte to the ape-human conflict, provides some much-needed comic relief and is a standout. Harrelson effectively portrays The Colonel as an enigmatic and driven warrior with believable motivations. He plays a foil to Caesar as both want to try and save their “families”, but whereas Caesar’s motivations are rooted in sacrifice and care, The Colonel’s reasons are rooted in fear.
The film is a slow burn for the first two acts and for a film titled War, it does not have as much action as I was hoping for. Even in this way, War for the Planet of the Apes subverts expectations and is much more thought-provoking than it had to be. Through Caesar’s character arc, director Matt Reeves and Andy Serkis ask a poignant question and preach a powerful message: what does it truly mean to be human? The answer is not not so much our physical complexion or capacity for higher thinking, but our actions, morals, and how those correlate with our heart. Even if being evil is expected of us, we don’t have to accept our vices as the integral part of who we are, instead rising above. Ironically, viewers are called to find humanity not in the human beings or members of their own species but instead in the foreigner and “animal.” It is a compelling and imperative reminder.
Zachary Lee is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at zjl4@cornell.edu.