‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ proves that the philosophical blockbuster is not extinct

Ryan Greene

Rating: PG-13, for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements and some disturbing images.

Starring: Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson

Genre: Action & Adventure, Drama

Directed By: Matt Reeves

Written By: Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves

In Theaters: July 14, 2017

Runtime:140 minutes

“War for the Planet of the Apes” demands that audiences take a hard look at what it means to be human.

Before delving into the new film’s narrative, however, one needs to revisit the 1968 version. It continues to be a classic because it upended our most universal assumption: that humanity’s supremacy can be taken for granted.

Driving the film is character George Taylor, played by Charleton Heston, who is shocked at losing this status in an instant, and losing it to another species that cannot empathize with human suffering. It forces a reflection on our treatment of other species and historical injustices nations carry out against one another. The film posits that when one group views another as intellectually inferior, atrocities are inevitable. Superior and inferior statuses are not necessarily irreversible, either.

The 1968 film accomplishes this through an exclusively human perspective. In 2017, director Matt Reeves’ “War for the Planet of the Apes” proclaims many of the same messages through a new vantage point. “War” asks audiences to view this narrative through the eyes of those who would replace them.

The film is full of heavy-handed and sometimes eye-rollingly obvious Biblical and Shakespearean allegories. However, Reeves bends audience’s minds in another way. None of the humans in “War for the Planet of the Apes” are depicted as heroic. They are merely trying to survive, and are killing apes in order to do so. They are also wiping out one another, murdering anyone who is infected with Simian Flu.

James Franco’s character, who raised Caesar, played by Andy Serkis, in the series’ first installment, was the last sympathetic human the rebooted series gave us. Reeves never gives audiences much incentive to root for their own species’ continuation.

The narrative instead asks viewers to side with the apes’ plight, while knowing full well that their victory will result in humanity’s eventual subjugation and demise. Our species is going extinct before our eyes, and we applaud. If that does not make you shift uneasily in your theater seat, nothing will.

In 2014, Serkis made waves in Hollywood when he said, “Caesar and all the other computer generated characters I have ever played are driven by one thing and that is acting. Audiences want to be moved by acting, not by a visual effect.”

While Serkis and actors like him are hardly auteur in their views of who makes a film evocative, it is impossible to deny the cornucopia of CGI effects in “War for the Planet of the Apes.” Fleets of apes stand together, gesticulating and appearing perfectly distinct from one another. The detail in their digital skins is staggering and we can see each individual hair on their coats. Practical effects and stuntmen in rubber suits simply would not compare.

Much has been written on the subject of performance capture one day replacing traditional acting. This is part of what makes “War” one of those rare, intellectual action films. While we ponder human replacement by ape, we are immersed in a film that replaces most of the actors with motion captured, digital facades.

Should you watch it: Yes.

Humanity is thus threatened with replacement by primitive creatures in the film’s world and by technological advancement in the real world. Our technology threatens to absorb the human art of acting, and it does so while materializing the face of our hyper-intelligent genetic ancestors. In both cases, creation replaces creator.

As Woody Harrelson’s villainous Colonel says of the apes’ impending takeover, “The irony is that we created you.”

Collegian reporter Ryan Greene can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter at @Ryangre75057034.