Humanity’s seen better days.
Most of our kind are gone now, thanks to a deadly virus called the Simian Flu. Those of us who remain … well, let’s just say we’re feeling a little stressed.
See, the same chemically engineered flu gave other primates—chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans—a little boost in the IQ department. They’re mankind’s intellectual equals now, capable of riding horses, shooting guns and creating civilizations of their own. Some can even speak.
While that’s a nice development for the apes and all, it’s rather upsetting for humans. And they’re not going to give up their planetary primacy without a fight.
As the film opens, ape headquarters—headed by the smart, loquacious chimp Caesar—fends off a human attack, repelling humankind’s high-tech weaponry with spears and superior strategy. Four human soldiers are captured, and Caesar decides to send them back alive with a message: “Leave us the woods, and the killing can stop.” He tells one of his subordinates that he’s also sending a second, underlying message: Those living, unharmed soldiers are proof that the apes aren’t animals.
The message goes unheeded. Soon, soldiers led by a man known only as the Colonel attack again, ambushing the settlement when most of the apes are asleep. Among the casualties are Caesar’s own wife and eldest son.
So the apes decide to pack up and leave. Before Caesar’s son was killed, he told the group of a land beyond a massive desert, perhaps even beyond the reach of these meddlesome humans. A place where apes can live in peace and even thrive.
Caesar says he’s not coming: He’s got other work to do—a bloodier sort of work. He’s going to hunt down the man who killed his family and make him pay, perhaps exacting a down payment from other humans he comes across, too.
But Caesar isn’t going alone. A cadre of his closest confidants refuses to leave his side: Rocket, Caesar’s one-time rival and now loyal friend; Luca, Caesar’s massive gorilla lieutenant; and Maurice, Caesar’s trusted orangutan advisor.
Then they stumble upon another primate: this one small and weak and … blond. She can’t speak for some unknown reason, and the little girl’s an orphan, too. (Her apparent guardian tried to kill the apes, so Caesar killed him instead.) Clearly, she’s not the sort of species Caesar wants to fraternize with right now. She’ll slow his small guerilla party down. She’ll eat their food and drink their water. Plus—and there’s no getting around this—she’s human. And Caesar’s done playing nice with humanity.
But Maurice steps in, saying if the girl doesn’t come, he’ll stay with her. “She’ll die out here alone,” he says.
So along she comes, one waif of a human traveling alongside four of the toughest ape hombres around. Which makes her … what? An honorary ape? A brainwashed hostage?
And just how will she impact Caesar’s quest for revenge?
All the recent Planet of the Apes movies pull a fairly deft switcheroo on the classic franchise’s narrative: They make us root for its simian heroes even when the apes are warring against members of our own kind. The filmmakers give our primate protagonists a level of complexity, depth and emotional maturity we just don’t see from their human cohorts.
War is no different in this respect. Caesar is a principled leader doing his best for the apes who believe in him. He grieves deeply for his family and his oft-abused followers. And when he gets angry, it’s mostly a righteous kind of anger, rage born of cruelty and injustice. When Caesar’s colony of apes is captured, for example, he presses, nonviolently, for their human captors to at least provide them food and water. When they refuse, and when he stands up for an ape being whipped, Caesar’s whipped and tied to an X-shaped cross, left to suffer and perhaps die at the mercy of the elements. And when it looks as his captors will kill him (because of his stubborn commitment to make the humans treat the captive apes with basic decency and behave, ironically, humanely), the rest of the apes offer their lives in exchange for his, agreeing to keep laboring for the humans as long as Caesar is unharmed.
The girl, who comes to be called Nova, brings a level of humanity to the simian small group, too. One by one, she wins their affections through her guileless goodwill. She comforts an ape as he dies, giving him a flower as tears drain down her face. She risks her own life to give food and water to captive apes. And as Caesar travels with her, he comes to an uncomfortable realization about himself: He, like his old arch-enemy, the human-hating Koba, is slowly being consumed by his own hatred.
Plenty of apes risk and sacrifice their lives for others. One new chimpanzee—known only as “Bad Ape”—shows a great deal of moxie by willingly entering a place of serious danger.
After the movie, a critic friend of mine turned to me and said, “The only thing missing was Caesar bringing down the Ten Commandments.”
Indeed, War for the Planet of the Apes offers plenty of spiritual nods, with Caesar serving as both a Moses-like and Christ-like figure, from his suffering on an X-shaped “cross” to leading his people to their own promised land.
But those allusions are under the surface a bit. More explicit references to faith aren’t so positive. The Colonel leads a rogue band of American soldiers who often bear the Greek symbols for Alpha and Omega—symbols that are tattooed on a massive American flag, as well. His soldiers chant that they are “the beginning and the end.” The Colonel wears a cross around a neck, and a cross is prominently displayed in his headquarters, too. He calls Caesar’s colony an “unholy kingdom” and refers to his fight against the apes as a “holy war.”
We do see lots of naked apes, but nothing critical is exposed (unless one is disturbed by small ape breasts). Apes express their affection for each other by pressing their foreheads together, and Caesar refers to his fallen mate as his “wife.”
The Colonel and his crew are cold-blooded killers, and not just of apes, as we’ll see.
Those primates certainly suffer their share of violence at the Colonel’s hand. In the movie’s opening skirmish, apes are shot and die in explosions before most of the humans are then speared and killed by them in turn. (Caesar’s later told that 63 of his kind died in the attack; we see their corpses strewn about after the battle.) A follow-up sortie leaves more of the intelligent creatures dead, and Caesar cradles his lifeless family members in his arms. Simians unfortunate enough to be captured alive by the Colonel are sometimes “crucified” on those X-shaped crosses or whipped if they make a mistake. Other servant-like apes, called “donkeys,” get pushed around and manhandled (gorilla-handled?).
But the humans sometimes brutally kill their own kind, too. The Colonel believes that the virus has mutated, robbing humans of their speech. So he executes everyone who’s lost their ability to talk—including his own son—and also slaughters anyone who dares protest. Caesar comes across three victims left in the snow, bloody bullet wounds staining their white shrouds. (One victim still lives, but his mouth and beard are bloodstained.)
Apes pummel men to death, and they beat up on others of their kind, too. Someone who’s about to kill Caesar’s friends gets gunned down. A man is blown up via rocket launcher. One gorilla is suffocated. Another is shot in the temple, killing him. A well-placed grenade triggers a series of explosions, killing many. Helicopters are blown out of the sky. A man shoots himself. An ape gets struck in the side with an arrow.
[Spoiler warning] An avalanche kills hundreds, perhaps thousands of humans—perhaps all that’s left of humanity’s fighting forces.
The movie’s sentient simians have discarded humankind’s bad habit of swearing. But the remaining humans still spit the occasional salty profanity: Characters say “h—” twice and misuse God’s name twice, once with the word “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused once.
The Colonel pours something from a flask into a mug. In another scene, we see him lying in bed, reaching for what appears to be an empty liquor bottle.
An ape flings excrement at a guard to draw his attention, smacking him in the head twice with the stuff.
The rebooted Planet of the Apes series continues to march forward inexorably into the past—now nearing the point where the whole story began back in 1968 when Charlton Heston arrived on the simian scene.
The special effects are far better these days, of course: Frankly, most Halloween costumes are more convincing than some of those in the later entries in the original Apes franchise (think 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes).
But in many respects, these modern Ape movies share a great deal of narrative DNA with their classic predecessors: apocalyptic pathos, a sly sense of humor (we see scrawled on some walls a reference to the “ape-pocalypse now”) and a desire to grapple with larger issues.
War, like its forerunners, asks some pretty important questions: What does it mean to be human? Is it possible to lose our humanity? We sympathize with the apes here because they look—in their ethos, if not their appearance—like us. They are, for the most part, the heroes we’re invited to root for. The Colonel, meanwhile, is the most inhuman character we meet.
But given the juxtaposition of the Colonel’s apparent religiosity and the multiple nods to Caesar’s almost divine calling to lead his people to freedom, it seems this film has even more on its mind. It’s tempting to see the story primarily as a criticism of a certain brand of militant Christianity. But might it also be asking whether we humans are squandering our divine inheritance? Questioning whether we always act as if we’re made in God’s own image?
The content, meanwhile, is of a piece with its recent forebears (foreapes?). It perhaps ratchets up the violence a bit, but offers plenty of moments of warmth and self-sacrifice too. We hear some bad language and bad behavior to be sure, but it’s a bit less than what most summertime blockbusters offer its viewers these days.
This is indeed a war movie. But in truth, the war it depicts is not fought with spears and guns alone. It’s also a war of the heart. Namely, a war over how we should live and treat others. And it shows how all of us, when twisted by hate and fear and guilt, can become beasts.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.