It’s not an exaggeration to describe War for the Planet of the Apes, the third installment in the trilogy of Planet of the Apes prequels as a biblical epic. It’s a faithful retelling of the Exodus narrative, albeit one featuring CGI apes. The film’s opening battle sequence sets its doleful tone as a small squadron of human soldiers quietly works through a forest towards an ape-protected bunker, leading to inevitable bloodshed. A God’s-eye view shows the horrors of battle from above, giving the audience a larger frame and a bit of distance to ponder the violence. It’s this meditation on the ethics of violence– why we are drawn to it, what it means to take another’s life, when is violence appropriate–which War explores so thoroughly. The apes’ moral code involves two explicit laws: 1) Apes strong together and 2) Ape not kill other ape. By the end of the film, both of these laws have been thoroughly tested.
Before the leader of the simian exiles, Caesar (Andy Serkis, who deserves accolades for his affecting motion-capture performance), can lead his community to a new home away from the human threat, a maniacal Colonel (Woody Harrelson) invades and enslaves the apes, driving Caesar on a mission of vengeance and redemption. The first half of the film is a journey narrative following Caesar and his faithful companions: Maurice (Karin Konoval), the merciful and wise orangutan; Rocket (Terry Notary), Caesar’s right-hand ape; and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), the powerful and protective gorilla. They happen upon Nova (Amiah Miller), a silent human girl with bright, compassionate eyes, and Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), who serves as the film’s comic relief with his self-deprecating silliness. This pilgrimage portion is also an internal journey for Caesar, who must wrestle with his desire for vengeance against the Colonel while holding fast to his own sense of morality and mission. When Caesar is ultimately captured at the snowy mountain fortress of the Colonel, the War‘s second half morphs into a prison break film. That War keeps its narrative and tonal bearings is a remarkable feat, as the film moves between war film, prison escape, melodrama, sci-fi action, and religious spectacle with a keen sense of fluidity and direction.
There is conspicuous use of Christian religious imagery in War which feels too obvious to be unintentional. These religious symbols are often in the hands of the violent human beings. The Colonel–a clear allusion to Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, from his shaved head to his Brando-esque vocalization–co-opts religious images for his own purposes, making his war a divine crusade against both the apes and the humans who aren’t part of his purity agenda. I’m convinced the titular “war” is less about the ape-human conflict and more about humans vs. humans, as evidenced by the final battle sequence and the roles each species plays in the narrative. The apes desire peace and an end to the battles; the humans’ kneejerk reaction is always towards militaristic brutality, a “shoot first and ask questions later” mindset. Thus, the Colonel kills both apes and humans in order to “save” the human race. His faction is known as “Alpha-Omega,” the Greek symbols tattooed on soldiers’ skin or embossed on body armor. A cross hangs around the Colonel’s neck, as well as prominently in his personal lair. He places Caesar and other apes on cross-like beams as a form of punishment. In a lengthy face-to-face conversation, he confesses to Caesar that he gave up his own son as a sacrifice to keep a dangerous virus from spreading to other humans. This latter story is like a dark parallel to the Abraham and Isaac narrative of Genesis 22, only one where the Lord does not intervene, leaving Abraham to enact brutal violence against his innocent son with no meaningful outcome. In a scene alluding to both the Noahic flood and the parting of the Red Sea, the final battle ceases when an act of nature–or divine intervention?–wipes out the human threat and allows the ape refugees to escape to the Promised Land beyond the mountains. The final scene is essentially a retelling of Deuteronomy 34, with the Mosaic leader climbing a mountain to look over the Promised Land with his own eyes before resting from his mission.
War‘s use of religious images aren’t critiques of Christianity, painting religion as the villain. Nor are they co-opting religion to somehow add a layer of depth or transcendence to what is otherwise an action-packed summer blockbuster. As my film critic friend Steven Greydanus notes in his review, “The biblical analogies aren’t gratuitous.” In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, director Matt Reeves cites the influence of the genre of biblical epics: “We watched Bridge on the River Kwai. We watched The Great Escape. We watched Biblical epics, because I really felt like this movie had to have a Biblical aspect to it. We watched Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments.” Regarding Caesar as a leader in the vein of Moses, Jesus, or other biblical figures, Reeves says, “The movie is totally about his mythic ascension…The battle for his soul that cements his position as the key figure in early Ape history. You can imagine the story of him would inspire religions.” Caesar truly serves as both a Moses and a Christ figure, a troubled-yet-courageous civil rights leader leading his people towards liberation. That he happens to be a hyper-intelligent ape may seem a bit outlandish, and perhaps these films take themselves a bit too seriously at times. Yet the ideas they explore with thoughtfulness and intentionality are worth noting, especially as they reveal the moral and religious compass of our own culture, and can serve as an apt warning.
In American Religious and Biblical Spectaculars, author Gerald Forshey explores the history of the filmic genre of “biblical epic” in American filmmaking. From Ben-Hur to Quo Vadis, Samson and Delilah to The Ten Commandments, Forshey notes that biblical epics had to adapt to an increasingly pluralistic culture and materialist/secular worldview, that these religious films’ various forms and themes evolved with each decade as a mirror and response to the societal ethos. As such, the films themselves are key cultural artifacts, barometers for the moral and spiritual environment of American culture in a given era. Religious and biblical epics reflect the cultural zeitgeist of their origin. If War for the Planet of the Apes can be considered a biblical epic (and I believe it can), it serves as a wake-up call to the viewer to not go down the path of violence, exclusion, or following fear-mongering political leaders who use religion for their nefarious motives. In the vein of apocalyptic literature, War uses fantastic, imaginative imagery to spark the viewer’s moral imagination and warn of what may come should we continue down this path of excluding the Other. Just like the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation in the Bible, War is highly political and subversive, calling out political and religious leaders to account for their actions and postures, and warning those who would be deceived into embracing the violent ethics of the empire. The Colonel, in his madness, literally attempts to build a wall to keep his “kingdom” pure from outsiders by using the apes (refugees) as slave labor for his agenda, all under the guise of religious and nationalistic propaganda. Might we draw some parallels to current American political leaders? In our present era of divisiveness and global unrest, where refugees are refused at borders, religious fanatics pursue modern-day crusades, and American political leaders dupe the religious into believing nationalist agendas, War for the Planet of the Apes is the biblical epic for our time, one which condemns retributive violence and lauds acts of mercy and grace towards one’s neighbor, regardless of species. Apes strong together. Ape not kill other ape. Were we as humans to embrace such a simple moral code of community and nonviolence, how might it transform our world?
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3450958/