Is it rude to point out that male chimps don’t hug their sons? That’s because they don’t know they have sons! They aren’t “faithful” to their “wives,” which they don’t have. Struggles for male dominance within a chimp troop frequently lead to mutilation or death, and conflicts between groups can be equally lethal, sometimes resulting in cannibalism. I’m sorry, but it’s silly to contrast “innocent” apes with wicked humans by assigning to apes virtues that they don’t have, that only humans even conceive of. All the sexual morality that War for the Planet of the Apes attributes to apes is found – to the extent that it is found – only among humans, because morality is a human construct – which is why we find it so easy, and, often so exciting, to violate.
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Back in the day, I used to work as a contractor with the National Commission for Education Statistics. Whenever we put out a report, we agonized, not over data, but over pictures. We have to send the right message here! We need Hispanic kids and black kids! The black boy is looking down the microscope? Can’t we have a black girl for that? This is a math report! Aren’t there too many Asian kids on the cover? And this kid! He could be American Indian, couldn’t he? And what about Hawaiian natives? And Alaskan natives!
Yes, we worried about things like that. We worried about girls who were too pretty (or, absolutely the worst of all, sexy.) We didn’t have the budget to go out and hire models, which we didn’t want to do anyway, but when you’re using unposed pictures, well, did the kids give their permission to be photographed in the first place? If only there were some sort of generic, all in one and one in all kid you could use, that would please everyone and offend no one!
Well, surprisingly enough, life in DC can be a lot like life in Hollywood, except of course in Hollywood they’re smarter, because they have found generic all in one and one in all sympathy figures: apes!
I am a severe latecomer to the whole planet of the apes thing, passing on the Charlton Heston1 original and passing on all the sequels and reboots that have, well, rebooted themselves, but I’m damned if I’ll pay to see a rebooted Spiderman, and War for the Planet … has been an unqualified smash, 98% at Rotten Tomatoes! So naturally I saw it and so naturally I’m going to bitch.
A week or so ago I bemoaned the fact that Baby Driver sought to yank if not actually masturbate our heartstrings by equipping “Baby” (Ansel Elgort) with a stepdad who is both black and deaf – how cute is that? – and by having Baby (who can, of course, talk natural) sign with dad as well.2 Yes, we do find the deaf touching, and signing is touching too. And speaking of touching, you know what else is touching? Apes! Oh yeah! You see where I’m going with this? How about a whole nation of apes – chimps, mostly, but gorillas and orangutans too – and they all sign? And we’ve got a hero who signs and talks! Who needs ethnicity when we’ve got apes? Signing apes!
Okay, since you’re probably seen earlier “Apes” films – I’m assuming you’re less of a culture snob than I am – this is probably old news to you. But I was a total virgin to this stuff, and since I didn’t have my bifocals with me, I couldn’t read the backstory in the screen, but it didn’t take long to figure – apes good, humans bad. Except for this one human who – wait for it – can’t talk.
It’s perfectly okay to create a world of humanized animals for any purpose whatsoever, from Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit to Swift’s houyhnhnms and yahoos (arguably, the “source” of the whole “apes” thing in the first place). I myself created a whole galaxy of mostly giant insects for my hero, Vorak of Kolnap, an amiable (usually) six-foot cockroach. But I find it a bit silly to romanticize apes for having human qualities that they in fact do not have while demonizing humans for having qualities that we, well, that we do have but that we share in some manner with our simian cousins.
The specific plot of War is set in motion when the evil “Colonel” (Woody Harrelson) kills “Cornelia” (Judy Greer) wife of signin’ and speakin’ boss ape Caesar (Andy Serkis)3, as well as the elder of their two sons, “Blue Eyes” (Max Lloyd-Jones4). Caesar sets off with “Rocket” (Terry Notary), a fellow chimp, along with “Red” (Ty Olsson), a gorilla, and Maurice (Karin Konoval), an orangutan (a very large orangutan), who may be part Vulcan (just a guess) to avenge their deaths.
What follows can best be described as the drippings and leavings of Star Wars, Star Trek, some bad-ass posturing from Apocalypse Now, and a big chunk of the Book of Exodus. Our searchers pick up an ally in “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn), another chimp, who comes across as a less racist (fortunately) Jar-Jar Binks, who seems to spend a lot of time falling down holes. Funny!5 Also they pick up this sweet chick “Nova” (Amiah Miller, below), a mute who is the only female of any species to get decent screen time.
Is it rude to point out that male chimps don’t hug their sons? That’s because they don’t know they have sons! They aren’t “faithful” to their “wives,” which they don’t have. Struggles for male dominance within a chimp troop frequently lead to mutilation or death, and conflicts between groups can be equally lethal, sometimes resulting in cannibalism.6 I’m sorry, but it’s silly to contrast “innocent” apes with wicked humans by assigning to apes virtues that they don’t have, that only humans even conceive of. All the sexual morality that War for the Planet of the Apes attributes to apes is found – to the extent that it is found – only among humans, because morality is a human construct – which is why we find it so easy, and, often so exciting, to violate.
As I’ve suggested, there are no “strong” females in this film, and, as far as I could tell, no LGBT apes either, which, after all, could be kind of fun. They could distill chartreuse and give each other apish attitude – “Either this banana tree goes or I do.” That sort of thing.
Am I the only one who notices this stuff? I mean, in the year of Wonder Woman, a critical smash/blockbuster that’s virtually chick-free? And I could also complain about the geography. First it’s tropic, like, Africa, then they’re in the “North,” and then it’s pretty definitely Monument Valley, where John Ford used to shoot all his westerns, before ending up by a lake that looks like a pre-development Tahoe. How chimps are supposed to survive in an environment like that is anybody’s guess.
Earlier, the chimps are building this huge wall for the Colonel (above) that’s almost like the ancient Hebrews making bricks for old Pharaoh without straw. And when they reach the, you know, “Promised Land,” and then Caesar dies, it’s sort of like Moses, or since they’re clearly in the American West it’s like if the Indians got away from the white folks and got their country back. So why not do a remake of Exodus if that’s what it really is? Or an outright Indian picture, if that’s what it is?
Well, Hebrews – Jews, really – that can be controversial. You might be sending the wrong message. And if you did an Indian picture, well, the Indians would probably want in on it, would want Indians in the lead roles. And when did an Indian carry a picture? I’m trying to be realistic here.
But apes, Jesus. Everybody loves apes. Everybody!
It’s “interesting” that all of the critics who are falling all over themselves for the cheesy sentimentality of “Apes” are also falling all over themselves over the campy cynicism of Game of Thrones, which is pretty much The Sopranos with dragons or maybe Lord of the Rings without any good guys.
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Note: This review is reprinted from longtime BLFJ contributor Alan Vanneman’s indispensable blog Literature R Us. Go there now. (Images are screenshots from the trailer, unless otherwise indicated.)
- Why can’t Word spell “Heston”? What is the deal here, Bill? [↩]
- The shtick of gaining sympathy for a speaking character by endowing him/her with the ability to sign goes back at least as far as Lily Tomlin’s character in Robert Altman’s Nashville. [↩]
- In “real life,” of course, Julius Caesar’s wife was named Cornelia. I’m not sure what this is supposed to mean. [↩]
- I don’t know why Max gets a credit, because I don’t remember Blue Eyes doing anything except die. I guess the guy has a good agent [↩]
- The slapstick here was so sloppy that at first I couldn’t believe it was supposed to be funny. Largely because it wasn’t. [↩]
- None of the apes ever show their canines, which, in gorillas especially, are quite “impressive,” not to mention scary as hell. But apparently admitting that apes sometimes bite would be “sending the wrong message.” [↩]