War for the Planet of the Apes: Bleakness without Cynicism

The quiet moments in War for Planet of the Apes surprised me.

Bleak stories like this movie can easily veer very sharply off into cynicism. Moments of joy or hope get cut horrifically short because it’s “realistic.” To quote a fantastic video essay by MrBtongue on Game of Thrones, which critiques the translation of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire to the popular tv show:

“All those moments in the river lands at the quiet isle on the wall… they’re gone, unnecessary, extraneous to the proceedings. We’re in the world… where cynicism is nothing less than wisdom, and pacifism is nothing more than naivete.”

Spoilers below.

MrBtongue expresses a further concern that the grimdark nature of the show will leave a lasting impact on the fantasy genre, much in the way Martin’s books and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings did. And to a certain extent, we already see it happening. I’m not going to pretend that the notion of “real art is cynical” is new, much less that it was introduced or even popularized by Game of Thrones; one only needs to look back at the tone comics took after the publication of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in 1986, though neither of those introduced that concept either.

Both of those series are still considered the peak of comic literature; the pieces that actually put comics into the realms of literature and therefore literary critique. This was mostly due, like Martin’s series, to its willingness to explore complex issues and – especially in the case of Watchmen – lean heavily on symbolism. However, the most visible impact of pieces like these that we see is rarely in that complexity, but rather in the grimdark setting in which the tales take place.

“I despaired of the effect that Watchmen had had on the comics industry,” [Alan Moore once said], “because what I’d hoped that people would take from it was the approach to storytelling, the worldview, the approach to reality as a web of co-incidences and chance remarks. But I think what they took from it was … Rorschach. What they took from it was, ‘This guy’s really violent, and he’s psychopathic, therefore let’s make all the characters violent psychopaths.’ For a long time, looking at comics was like being in a hall of mirrors in a funfair, where you can only see ugly, distorted reflections of yourself.” [BBC Culture]

Mediums like comic books and video games, genres like science fiction and fantasy, these are storytelling frameworks the fans of which often fight for recognition. We want to see the things we love acknowledged as clever, important, impactful. We want to see these things recognized as art. We want Andy Serkis to get an Oscar.

However, many times in our pursuit of recognition for the genre or the mediums that we love, we try to make it something that it’s not, or something that it doesn’t have to be. And so we fall into the “real art is cynical” trap. We fall into the idea that maturity is grim and depressing, that things soft and light are for the childhood we left behind.

Some cases of cynicism have a purpose in stories; there’s no denying that. An earlier draft of Get Out, a horror story about modern racism directed by Jordan Peele, ended with the hero getting shot by a cop for acting in self-defense against the Armitage family. This was plotted out before the larger Black Lives Matter movement, and Peele had intended to use it to shed light the discrimination and racial profiling of black people by law enforcement. In that cultural context, a bleak and cynical turn would have been an important statement, a wake-up call.

However, by the time Get Out was released, there was a broader understanding of the violence against blacks by police, and Peele believed that the audience needed instead a cathartic ending and not something that relived the ongoing stories of black men and women killed by police brutality [Screen Crush]. And so the hero was spared in the final draft. And that is just as mature a storytelling choice for the movie as the original, cynical ending would have been.

It’s that idea of catharsis that I wish to bring back to the Planet of the Apes reboot films.

In the scene where Nova sneaks into the compound and provides water and food to Caesar, I kept waiting for it to go horribly wrong. I was waiting for a guard to happen upon her. I was waiting for the Colonel to shoot her from his all-seeing perch above. I was certain, absolutely certain that this heartfelt scene would not be allowed to play out in full.

On one hand, this tension I was experiencing was a mark of good storytelling. War for the Planet of the Apes established high stakes early on, with Caesar’s wife and eldest son murdered in his home. It reaffirmed those high stakes when Luca died within sight of the camp, highlighting the cost of Caesar’s desire for revenge. This was also a carry-over from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, whose moment of joyful triumph was cut short by Koba’s coup.

On the other hand, this tension was a symptom of the grimdark expectations of genre pieces that are trying to establish themselves as art. And it was a mark of good storytelling by War that it did not fall into that trap.

Nova’s kindness to Caesar is allowed to play out in full. Rocket’s ploy to save Nova in the moments immediately following did not end with his death. Caesar’s reunion with his surviving son was uninterrupted.

War for the Planet of the Apes is an incredibly bleak movie, but these moments are the catharsis the audience needs to make it through to the end. These moments are also crucial to the core of the movie, its “spirit” as MrBtongue would say.

Andy Serkis has said in an interview that “The war is also the war for Caesar’s soul” [NY Times]. Caesar is being drawn down the path that Koba had gone in the previous movie, and we see him fighting these impulses even as he pursues revenge against the Colonel. As such, every action set before Caesar or the rest of the cast is weighed in that dichotomy, and the movie metes out responses in accordance with its spirit. Cruel choices have consequences. Kind choices have reward.

War didn’t feel the need to play itself as dark as possible in order to appear “mature” or to try to give the science fiction genre legitimacy in the eyes of critics. It knew it needed those quiet moments. It knew it needed Bad Ape’s comic relief. It knew there it was bringing something more to the table that “realistic” despair. It knew what it wanted to bring to the table, and what it brought was hope.

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