War for the Planet of the Apes
“War for the Planet of the Apes rebukes toxic masculinity and centers nonverbal communication, but it forgets to lift up women or people of color in its ambitious goals.”
Title: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
Director: Matt Reeves 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Screenplay by Matt Reeves 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Mark Bomback 👨🏼🇺🇸 based on the characters by Rick Jaffa 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Amanda Silver 👩🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
The visual effects of War for the Planet of the Apes are breathtaking. While the premise of evolved apes riding around horseback or embracing their wives could look incredibly strange onscreen, the virtuosity with which the apes are animated easily vaults over that potential snag.
Unfortunately, what’s left over isn’t quite as seamless. The dense storyline lords its sophistication over its audiences, wielding historical allegories with a heavy hand. While it’s refreshing to see a summer blockbuster take a more thoughtful path, at almost two and a half hours running time I found myself ready to disengage from the ride less than halfway through.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? NOPE
Women are a rarity in this film dominated by men and simians. The ones who do exist remain stuck in flat and stereotypical roles: Nova, played Amiah Miller, is the young girl taken in by the very apes who orphaned her, yet she never seems to have any qualms about trusting them. Nova is used as a device to spur the apes into becoming more empathetic—more human, almost—complete with having Rocket (Terry Notary) pluck a flower and gently place it into her hair.
Beyond Nova, I only glimpsed one human female, seen in fleeting shots of an army that tallies at least a hundred male soldiers. Meanwhile, among the simians, one imprisoned female lays down her dignity, resuming the backbreaking work required by the concentration camp they’re trapped in so that Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leading ape, may live. Her stereotypical role is solidified as she gushes later on, “You saved us!”
So why the extra points in this category? I have to applaud the way War treats toxic masculinity. Violence and aggression is deeply rebuked here, and while actual women are shoehorned into flat beacons of hope and empathy, the male apes stand as refreshing, complex heroes who contrast the destructive, fear-based humans.
Sarah Marshall summarizes this well in her review for War’s prequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), as she speaks of Caesar:
“I felt I was finally encountering a character I’d long ago given up on finding: a caring, empathetic protagonist, motivated not by pride or anger but by a deep desire to protect his people, and to keep harm from befalling even those he saw as enemies.
That the protagonist in question was a computer-animated chimpanzee hardly seemed to matter. Masculinity in American blockbusters is now so highly codified—and so yoked to muscular bodies, violent temperaments, powerful weapons, and expensive toys—that perhaps we had to go beyond the human male in order to find a character we could gift with all the dignity and complexity a hero should be capable of.”
War largely avoids the topic of race due to its computer-generated, simian “casting”, but like so much of the film, it speaks in code and allegory. Specifically, War condemns genocidal white nationalism with all the subtlety of a hammer. Its primary villain, simply named the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), is a one-to-one proxy for a skinhead. He is literally introduced to the audience as he shaves his head against the backdrop of a massive, hanging American flag reminiscent of Nazi banners. And he blesses his militant army by moving his bladed fingers in a cross sign.
So yes, War has its heart in the right place by positioning American terrorists as the evil counterpoint to empathetic, nurturing apes. But the science fiction genre is not new to the practice of chastising genocide while conveniently forgetting to walk the walk, as seen in Blade Runner 2049 which came out in the same year. I have to keep wondering how long these films will continue to milk the histories of oppressed minorities while excluding them from their own storylines in any meaningful way.
War does include people of color among their extras, at the very least. A cursory glance at the human army shows a number of black and Hispanic soldiers, although Asian or indigenous faces are rare. But the fact remains that all those in main or supporting roles—Nova, the Colonel, Caesar, Maurice, Rocket, Bad Ape, Koba, or Luca—are all exclusively portrayed by white actors.
Bonus for Disability: +0.75
The centering of nonverbal characters is a great boon to Planet of the Apes franchise. War continues its trend of showing communication to be so much more than just words; while lead characters of Caesar, the zoo runaway Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), and the Colonel all converse in English, the film’s heartbeats of Nova, Maurice (Karin Konoval), and Rocket are nonverbal as they convey their meanings through rudimentary ASL and body language. Meanwhile, the writers confirm their stance against ableism when the Colonel expresses his disgust at humans who have lost the ability for speech, calling them "primitives."
This category does get one caveat (and ding), however: at the emotional denouement of the film, the orangutan Maurice is suddenly able to speak with Caesar, using great effort to form words. I hated how this scene was scripted as some kind of breakthrough moment. Maurice was complete and whole before he could utter words, and it was such a disappointment that this entire film could go so far in denouncing ableism yet still turn around and flub their very own messaging.
Mediaversity Grade: C 3.25/5
War does a fantastic job of rebuking toxic masculinity and centering nonverbal communication, but it forgets to lift up women or people of color in its ambitious goals.