Stunning clash of civilisations
Iwatched War for the Planet of the Apes two days after I saw Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The two films have a lot in common. If that sounds as likely as a chimp writing Hamlet, please bear with me. Both directors take an unconventional approach to conventional movie genres: war for Nolan, sci-fi for Matt Reeves. They do it from opposite poles: Dunkirk, as I wrote last week, is notable for what it omits from a World War II film, particularly the Germans.
War for the Planet of the Apes includes more references to other films, and to human history, than I’ve seen in a while, and it works. It turns this 50-year-old primate conflict first imagined by French novelist Pierre Boulle into something thoughtful and compassionate, as well as thrilling. It is as relevant today as was the postCuban Missile Crisis original with Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowell.
The nods are overt at times, such as the hand-painted sign on a wall that declares Ape Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War masterpiece Apocalypse Now was the first movie that came to mind as I watched. Others included John Sturges’s prisoner-of-war classic The Great Escape (1963), Roman Polanski’s Warsaw Ghetto drama The Pianist (2002), Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), starring Heston as Moses.
James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) also has an influence, as it does in any of the recent movies that encourage audiences to hope for the (onscreen) elimination of their own species.
As it happens this is the director’s plan. The next day I read an interview with Reeves, who continues from the previous instalment in this reboot trilogy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The first, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was directed by Rupert Wyatt. (M)
Reeves said he and scriptwriter Mark Bomback “decided to watch a million movies” to prepare for making this $US150 million one. Not a bad job, is it? The studio, 20th Century Fox, set them up in a screening room for this binge, which included the nine Apes films made to date, a few of the movies I’ve mentioned and some I didn’t think of at the time but which make sense in retrospect, such as David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (also starring Heston).
Clearly they had more in mind than some biff between humans and apes, and it shows throughout. The human (and biblical) events and people we are reminded of include the Exodus, Julius Caesar, slavery, world wars, concentration camps, the Holocaust, the Palestinian conflict, the traducing of the planet, Donald Trump’s Mexican wall and, most of all, Jesus. There are scourgings and crucifixions.
So there is a lot to think about here. There are also 140 minutes of intense conflict between humans and apes. My 12-year co-viewer was absorbed by that, as was I.
The action opens 15 years after the end of the previous movie. The apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), are secluded in a mountainous forest, fugitives from the human army. The brave, ferocious, human-hating Koba, killed by Caesar last time, appears only in dreams and hallucinations, but his spectral presence is pivotal.
The compassionate Orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) is at Caesar’s side, wise counsel to the ape-of-action leader. “Now you sound like Koba,’’ he warns at one point. New Zealand cinematographer Michael Seresin beautifully captures this refuge and its inhabitants.
First, though, we see a group of soldiers moving through the forest. One has Monkey Killer etched on his helmet. There’s a telling moment where another soldier crouches down and a gorilla’s hand clamps on his shoulder. The soldier is not at risk. It’s the hand of a collaborator. Some apes have joined the humans on the promise they will be spared when the apocalypse comes. They carry the ammunition and other equipment and are called donkeys. That derisory designation is painted on their backs.