War for the Planet of the Apes opens with scenes that are familiar to American viewers: soldiers silently work their way through the jungle, looking for the enemy. The camera angle switches and they pull up short: three Kong have been spotted on the hill. The soldiers’ helmets are scrawled with slogans for morale, and we already get the sense we’ll hear a Jimi Hendrix song.
But this is Northern California, not North Vietnam, and that’s Kong with a K, as in King. And once these opening scenes are over, it won’t be the journey of the soldiers that we follow, but the revolutionary apes. In this parable, the apes are righteous rebels, and familiar iconography is re-envisioned, recasting humanity as the morally bankrupt hegemonic losers as the audience sympathizes with the outsider, populist primates instead. That is to say, humanity is the United States, and in War for the Planet of the Apes, we are not the good guys.
Apes pushes the viewer to interrogate the false dichotomy between the “primitive” and the “civilized,” a narrative used to great effect during the Vietnam War. Right or wrong, guerrilla warfare was then cast as horrific, ignoring America’s history with it, and the fact that we would never have gained independence without it. But viewing these same tropes from the side of the transgressor, we see a robust culture and well-drawn characters. The question of mercy — another way of considering what it means to be civilized — is central to this movie. Caesar fears he has become consumed with his angry quest for vengeance, like his old friend Koba, and the Colonel accuses him of coming to kill him and therefore having no mercy. But Caesar reminds the Colonel that he offered peace and was rebuffed. In the end, Caesar chooses mercy. It is the supposedly evolved Colonel who couldn’t contemplate a life as a “lower functioning” creature, something made all the more tragic considering how we see the girl Nova thrive with her new friends the apes. What to the Colonel is a death sentence, is to Caesar and Nova merely a different type of human being.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the movie is how the human soldiers dehumanize (deprimatize?) their collaborators. All primates on the human side, by choice or otherwise, are branded, spray-painted, and conscripted into servitude wherein they are known only by the slur “donkey.” This, the second Kong-related pop culture reference, could have been funny in a different film. But in Apes, the word is spat out, like the derogatory term that it is. The apes are roughly manhandled by the soldiers, and they seem unable to sign or speak English properly, an indication that though they are cut off from their kind, they are not accepted or cared for by the humans, either. All of this behavior from the humans shows their true nature: For all their talk of being civilized, they have done whatever mental gymnastics are necessary to let themselves off the hook for horribly mistreating the apes. They follow in a long tradition of militaries before them, and America’s is no exception. Calling Vietnamese people “Charlie,” short for Victor Charlie, for Viet Cong, is a clear comparison, but our military has been giving its enemies off-putting nicknames throughout history, from Jerry or Kraut for Germans to Hajji for the recent Middle East wars.
Apes has a cinematic kindred spirit in Dances with Wolves, calling to mind our genocide of the indigenous people of this continent. In a pretty clear parallel, the human soldiers, led by Woody Harrelson’s Colonel, want to exterminate the apes at any cost. Importantly, Apes improves on Wolves (and its many imitators, from Ferngully to Avatar) by having Caesar as the unequivocal leader of both his clan and the film, rather than using a colonial savior. While Caesar’s name comes from the original movies, it’s also a nice reference to more than one political revolutionary, who can be viewed as either populist heroes or violent insurrectionists, depending on your point of view, just like Andy Serkis’s masterfully acted lead. As Woody Harrelson points out, Caesar’s eyes are incredibly expressive, and in fact his entire physical performance is so impressive here that it would be noteworthy even if motion capture were not involved.
Apes clearly looks and feels like Wolves, with the beautiful vistas of a struggling civilization looking for a new home, backed by a score that is at turns sweeping, playful, and downright dire. But the clear comparison came through for me in the opening scenes, when the cavalry arrives to defend the trench from the humans. Covered in body paint and making war cries, the apes are so clearly a different culture from humankind. Just like the Sioux in Dances with Wolves, they simply want to be left alone to live their lives, and attempt to broker peace. This time, however, history is re-written: The plague that humans bring harms themselves, and technology is not a match for the superior strength of the apes.
Many critics have rightfully pointed out the parallels between Apes and World War II. While they are certainly present, they are not the only influence. We have a tendency as Americans to focus on WWII and the Greatest Generation, since it is often viewed with a sense of nostalgia. That war is considered the last just war, a time when America was the celebrated rescuer. Of course, this is a selective reading of history, one that ignores our isolationist policies, or the many refugees we turned away, opting instead to cherry-pick those we saved, including some, like Wernher von Braun, who had cooperated with the Third Reich but who nevertheless could offer something useful to our government.
Science fiction is at its best when it’s used as a prism through which we can view our own reality. Apes flips the script and shows us the other side of our own real conflicts by maintaining much of the imagery but placing the sympathetic characters on the other side, proverbially “over there.” After spending the first two movies of the trilogy investing in the primates and their conflict with humankind, the creative team earned the right to have the dissident apes take center stage as the true protagonists of the Planet of the Apes series.
Delia Harrington is preparing for the ape-ocalypse in Boston.