In the opening minutes of War for the Planet of the Apes, the third entry in the rebooted franchise of the 1968 Charlton Heston-starring original, a human soldier trudges up a forested hill sporting a metal cap with an engraved slur: “Bedtime for Bonzo” — replacing “Born to Kill” with the name of a 1951 Ronald Reagan comedy about a psychology professor teaching middle class manners to an untrained chimpanzee. Set long after the pathogen released into the atmosphere crippled the human race and sped up the evolution of primates in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, War plunges us into Heart of Darkness-like mystery. Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of the apes, has allegedly disappeared into legend during the elapsed time between the second and third installments. Instantly recalling Vietnam-era war films such as Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now (the helmet and Caesar as stowaway), these allusions swap our allegiance and sympathy from the imperialist stand-ins to those they instigate violence upon.
What we expect from our popular movies has obviously changed in recent decades and therefore, following the simple logic of supply and demand, it’s natural to assume that Hollywood aesthetics have morphed to be compatible with our desires and values as they’ve shifted. Although most straight-lined art-historical narratives are usually tell-tale signs of oversimplification, a certain lineage and alteration in post-WWII American consciousness can be bumpily traced from John Ford’s classical Westerns to Sam Peckinpah’s cruel nihilism to War for the Planet of the Apes — invention to subversion to simulacrum, with a few missing transitional steps along the way. Our engagement with popular movies has become more and more insular, where the nostalgia for specific genres has expanded into an identification of “craft” as the chief indicator of quality, fetishizing distinctiveness for distinctiveness’ sake (which Keith Uhlich coined under the broadly defined umbrella of ‘New Competence’). We’re told Logan is a Western, Guardians of the Galaxy is ‘80s pulp, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a conspiracy thriller, and the list goes on. But even by these standards, few films are as eager to cater to contemporary sensibilities quite like War for the Planet of the Apes — Vietnam war movie, Western, modern sci-fi parable, and portentous allegory with the bloatedness of a disproportionately large side of overcooked vegetables.
The mediation of historical metaphor through genre pastiche is not a self-reflexive indictment of past approaches to representation; it’s actually even more self-knowing than that. As the film progresses and the allegory expands, always in tandem with a broadening tapestry of cinephelic references, the ideas are generalized to a point of confusion and meaninglessness. This series reverses, complicates and sometimes muddies the racial overtones of earlier incarnations of the Apes franchises, the intertextuality snowballing into an even more circumscribed closed circuit. In Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, oppressed apes evolve from their cages to dominance (Caesar’s response to the iconic line “get your hands off me, you dirty ape” swaps the original questionable perspective), implicating fears of those who’d prefer to see an entire race kept under alienating conditions. Forgoing its metaphor of American racial politics for a more ambitious geo-political one, Matt Reeve’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, released in 2014, showed humans whose energy resources had depleted searching for a power plant in enemy territory, and the war that ensued when that initial trust between the two sides was broken. Based on how this actually went down in real life, it’s only natural then that War for the Planet for the Apes would follow-up with a refugee story.
Director Reeves transposes this story onto a futuristic frontier, modern artillery housed in secluded forts and scavengers on horseback approaching abandoned huts are but a few examples of the loaded imagery here. After the apes’ forest home is sieged by a human army headed by a maniacal skin-head, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), Caesar uproots his colony in search of a better life elsewhere, foregoing concerns over his safety while he, along with a handful of outlaw apes, splinters off to avenge those lost in battle. His companions, a chimp originally from a zoo, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a mute little girl didactically named Nova (Amiah Miller), and the even-tempered orangutan, Maurice (Karin Konoval), trek across the mid-West and so happen upon the camp where The Colonel has abducted their family of apes, barring them in cages outlined by barbed wire fencing.
Caesar is a Moses (Promised Land coda) and Jesus figure (lashings on a cross-like pole) – both emancipatory characters from different time periods, with different methods, ideologies and significance, treated here as one. The meaning and context that might connect these disparate stories, mythologies and influences are passed off with a loose a-historical link to current affairs: 2017 alt-right infested America. Harrelson and company embody a universal evil and double as a particularly pressing variant for the moment. With their cultish mantra “We are the first and the last” — the translation of the Alpha and Omega tattoos stained under The Colonel and his soldiers’ earlobes — the overtones of imperialist white supremacy are conjoined with policies of the recently elected administration. As Harrelson shaves the stubble off his bald head, migrants are subjected to forced labor and heavy abuse underneath a highly mounted American flag, the echoes of The Star-Spangled Banner heard faintly in the background. “Why are they building a wall?” asks an imprisoned ape in the camp built along the California-Mexico border. This is one of those unfortunate cases of a film (over)writing its own analysis.
The barriers that divide text from subtext and meta-text are torn down in War for the Planet of the Apes; instead we get all of them at once in a pasteurized soup of signification. With either tacit or explicit images that recall the USSR’s gulags, the genocide of indigenous Americans, two generations of occupied Israelites (separated by a couple thousand years), the Armenian Genocide, and more recently, Mexican aliens fleeing into the US and Syrian refugees caught in the crossfire of their ongoing civil war, the film singles out each of these histories and packages them in a smoothly coated genre capsule made up of otherwise incompatible ideas. Every story, culture, and fight throughout the ages between oppressed groups and their oppressors has apparently been subject to these same powers of good and evil, incidentally the same nefarious forces which now occupy the White House. Extraneous observations never fail to have suffocating 1:1 correlations between image and meaning. Whether past or present in setting, political or religious in theme, these narratives are treated as identical and indistinguishable from one another. Just like what Pauline Kael once said about Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, these evolutionarily advanced primates are like empty Christmas trees: “you can hang all your dumb metaphors on it.”