Hot damn but what a film.
It combines a western-style revenge tale with a POW-escape film, couched in the weight of a biblical epic, all wrapped up in the trappings of science fiction. It looks like Lord of the Rings and breathes like a Miyazaki film.
In an interview with Roger Ebert, Hayao Miyazaki explains the need for space between action in his movies, the moments where “people just sit for a moment, or they will sigh, or look in a running stream… only to give a sense of time and place and who they are.”
“We have a word for that in Japanese,” [Miyazaki] said. “It’s called ma. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally.”
Is that like the “pillow words” that separate phrases in Japanese poetry?
“I don’t think it’s like the pillow word.” He clapped his hands three or four times. “The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness, But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb.”
War for Planet of the Apes has so many moments like these. Moments that linger on, giving breath to the characters. Even Blue Eyes, who is killed shortly into the film, is given a small scene to demonstrate that he is becoming a good leader like his father. These moments also serve as a means to give hope and catharsis to the viewers.
I discussed this before, but in rewatching this film, it was so important that the gentle moments were allowed to be. Nova waltzing unnoticed into the middle of the Colonel’s camp might not be the most plausible thing, but emotionally it’s what the audience needed. Along with Caesar, we have been pounded into the dirt and left drained against the elements; we are losing the grip on hope. So the scene with Nova and the apes working together to supply Caesar with sustenance sustained us too, and gave use strength for the final, third act.
And let’s talk about Caesar, wonderful Caesar. He weeps so many times in this movie. He cries out of grief, out of pain, out of joy. His eyes are almost always on the verge of tears. His voice cracks both when he finds his youngest son alive and when he commands that Red stop beating the orangutan slave. He is, indeed, so emotional. Wonderfully emotional.
That accusation from the Colonel was also wonderful. How often do we hear that sort of speech from those who disregard the suffering of others? Don’t take things so personally, I’ve been told when faced with sexism, because that’s the way the world just is. I’ve been in arguments where the other person disregards the issues I’m trying to address because I’m emotionally involved. Such people act as if emotions should be cut away from our reasoning entirely, as if that is what will allow us to perform the great feats to save ourselves.
The Colonel quotes the sacrifice of his only son, or more accurately, his execution of his son, as if it was comparable to Jesus. As if divorcing himself from the emotional raised him to the state of godhood – “It purified me,” he says. Yet that comparison misses the mark; Jesus and God are both shown throughout the Bible to be emotional beings. The very sacrifice to which the Colonel parallel’s his own son’s is filled to the brim with emotion. God himself cries and feels forsaken. And the compassion and mercy that defined Jesus’ life leading up to his death (and after his resurrection), is more found in Caesar and his apes, especially Maurice.
That compassion that they demonstrate to both their friends and foes is ultimately what wins in the end. Red has a change of heart at the movie’s end by seeing his people being slaughtered and how hard Caesar strives to save them. Bad Ape, who is critical to the escape plan, is won over by empathy. Nova, likewise critical, is shown compassion by all of Caesar’s crew, making her willing to put her life on the line for all of them.
The treatment of Nova and others like her is also a comment on ableism. Those who have the disease that robs them of their speech, and potentially high brain functions (debatable due to the Colonel’s status as an unreliable narrator), are treated as less than human by the others. Full grown men are infantilized in the Colonel’s retelling of events and rounded up and killed.
In contrast, Maurice, Caesar, and the other apes instead see and treat these people with respect. The one mercy kill from Caesar was not because the man couldn’t speak, but rather because the man was dying slowly from a gunshot wound. Maurice guides and teaches Nova as if she were one of the ape children. Emotional bonds are formed, very strongly with Nova and, yes, even briefly with the man dying in the snow.
Of course, there is a limit to where we should give our emotions rein. Caesar’s anger boils to hate, and he lets that bring him to the point of destruction. It’s because he stayed to take his revenge on the Colonel that Preacher was able to shoot him. Like Moses dying within sight of the Promised Land for disobeying God, Caesar too sees his people to a new home but never gets to set foot inside it, dying of his wounds at the end of their journey.
Moses parallels abound in this movie. Caesar intervenes in the beating of one of his people, is taken to “Pharaoh” so to speak, to ask for aid on his people’s behalf, is initially rejected by his people upon his return to them, and then of course there’s the whole Red Sea scene.
The children of Israel were trapped between the sea and Pharaoh’s pursuing army. Caesar’s apes were trapped between the incoming army – dressed in white – and the Colonel’s soldiers. God sent down fire and clouds to hold off Pharaoh’s army to allow the people of Israel to flee between the waves of the Red Sea. Caesar set off an explosion, the flames and smoke of which held off the Colonel’s army to allow the apes to flee between the snow-peaked mountains and the white-clad soldiers. And then like the waves of the sea crashing in on each other, the avalanche came and crashed into the snow-white army, the apes passing it unharmed.
And the beauty of it is that none of the parallels feel forced or any of the symbolism faked. Everything feels true to the characters and to the story, and that’s because of those moments we were allowed to have. Those moments where the story breathes, the atmosphere settles into your skin, and the movie comes alive. The depth is real because it lives.
There were a thousand other thoughts I had about this movie while watching it, but to write them all would be impossible, for how am I supposed to fit in a praise about Rocket taunting a man by tossing a pile of s— up and down like a baseball next to some grandiose discussion about the importance of compassion? Yet somehow the movie does that exact thing.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a damn masterpiece.