Banana Bread with Nuts
There used to be trilogies back in the day where a single character arc would span three movies. It usually comprised of a long journey, an epic scope, thoughtful themes, great battles, immense emotional climaxes, and an engaging plot. Such is the new Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy that has taken an ancient science fiction story and infused it with vivid realism, a modern day allegory, and mythological characters that will stand the test of time.
The movie is deliberately paced, with a rather unpretentious cinematography cloaked in dark colors, bleakness, and grounded shots. The camera is excellently utilized, relying less of gimmicks and more on the movement and facial expressions of the characters. Some may find the portrait and up close facial shots aggravating but it shows me the director is focused. Plot developments flow evenly and progress naturally. They don’t serve just as a catalyst for action but rather the plot presents unique opportunities to poetize the sets, the visuals, and character blocking. Everything sings and chants with a thematic rhythm that embodies the crucial philosophical and ethical questions they are asking.
The movie opens (and I must warn there is a bit of the spoiler in this summary) with soldiers walking through the woods, equipped and ready for battle, their helmets infused with military lingo depicting their warrior names, all of them derogatory names for the superior Apes. The movie opens with war as a military Colonel (Woody Harrelson) seeks to destroy the leader of the apes, Caesar (played by the brilliant Andy Serkis). As you may recall, the last movie depicted a betrayal within the community of the Apes where Koba, Caesar’s right hand ape tries to enact a coup in order to kill off the human survivors. Caesar eventually kills Koba to try and win peace back with the humans but its too late. The survivors have called on the remaining US forces to kill them off. This sets the course for War. The conflict escalates though in the death of several loved ones, setting Caesar on a path of vengeance and fury (much like his latter enemy Koba). Tragedy fuels Caesar’s hate for the humans as time after time, he is betrayed and ridiculed despite offering peace and seeing the best in them.
There is so much I can talk about with this movie, but I want to focus on one aspect. The movie is a vivid and sometimes blaring allegory of human nature in conflict and war. You’ll notice this movie parallels films like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon. All these movies are in essence, an introspective look into the reality of war. Apocalypse Now peers into the war between human beings and the darkness of human nature while War for the Planet of the Apes is about the war of nature. I don’t believe in evolution but I do think it’s capable of being a very powerful tool for asking the question, “what makes us human?” Really? What separates us from the beasts? This is the critical question that this movie asks. Here we have not just a war between two sentient beings vying for control of territory, but rather a war for being the dominant species on the planet. Such is the question that we faced in the Vietnam War and every conflict that arises that requires or enacts violence.
One of the most interesting aspects of this story is the introduction and explanation of how humans lose their ability to talk or have higher levels of critical thinking (if you recall from the original 1968 film the humans were like brute beasts). The simian flu mutates eventually and humans slowly begin to degrade back into the alzheimer-like disease that was trying to be cured in RISE. Humans lose the ability to speak and their brain functions at an abnormally low level of intelligence (like the apes used to be). The daring question is asked, who will become the dominant species of the planet? This is where the movie takes an unexpected turn and provides some real food for thought. The culmination and climax wherein Caesar and the apes become the dominant species is not in some climactic battle or showdown, but rather in the refrain from violence. Movies like Apocalypse Now, The Road, Platoon, and other war and apocalyptic movies ask the question of where do humans lose their humanness during war and why does war create this problem? Obviously the answer lies in the fact that our human heart and nature that separates us from brute beasts is mercy, grace, and a sense of higher morality that sees people as valuable. The Colonel in this movie is ruthless, a killer and madman who believes that humans who have lost the ability to speak and act human should be killed like beasts. Caesar on the other hand protects his kind and even the humans who are slowly degrading into beasts. Who is showing grace and mercy? Who has a higher sense of purpose and morality that sees creatures as something valuable? The movie ironically through the allegory of war shows us that human nature is comprised of the ability to love and show grace and decency, so Caesar’s ability to do this sets him and his kind as the dominant species. It’s not power that sets us apart (a lion can tear us apart faster than we can raise a knife), but its our ability to love and do good that separates us from the beasts.
Caesar’s evolution taps into the newfound category of morals and the question the movie asks is whether or not Caesar can evolve above the humans who have lost all sense of morality in the battle for superiority against nature. Will Caesar become mad due to the losses he has endured and become like Koba who was no better than the people that tortured him in the laboratory. In presenting this predicament I find myself asking what makes me human, what makes us higher than the apes in the first place. Oh yes, our ability to be morally superior and to love and forgive and give grace. If we lose this, then perhaps we are devolving into beasts of the field. What is most shocking is that it doesn’t take a degenerate disease of the mind to lose our humanity but the depravity of our minds and actions in the midst of war, in this case the Apocalypse of the war of the Apes or as the movie so brilliantly says, the “Ape-colaypse Now”. The movie is something to ponder and think on because it asks the crucial questions of our day, especially when we confront real problems in the socio-political atmosphere of the modern world.
The movie is banana bread, a welcoming taste to an old series with a deep philosophical premise. Not to mention the nuts we can chew on and think on for quite some time and the explosion of flavor parallels the great sequences of action.