Directed again by Matt Reeves, War for the Planet of the Apes picking up 2 years after the events of Dawn and shows that the battle between humans and apes has escalated tremendously. With multiple casualties on both sides, Caesar (Andy Serkis) is determined to free ape-kind from the attacks of the humans’ relentless military leader Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson). After a human raid on the ape compound ends in tragedy, an enraged Caesar sends his colony away and opts to seek revenge on the Colonel himself.
What has made these most recent entries into the Apes franchise so special has been their heavy emphasis on character. Through his portrayal of Caesar, Andy Serkis isn’t just compelling as the Ape leader, he practically leaps off the screen as one of the more complex and, yes, ‘human’ characters in a franchise in the last two decades. More than a mere sympathetic character, director Reeves portrays Caesar as broken leader, torn between two worlds. Despite the fact that he was raised by humans, he isn’t one. What’s more, he doesn’t fit in with his fellow apes due to his human upbringing. There is a tension within Caesar that seems to bring conflict into every decision he makes. Will he succumb to his baser instincts? Will he seek a path that will cause tension with his own kind?
All of these questions, however, point to Caesar’s very human struggle of wanting to do good but battling his own inner demons. Unlike many other onscreen sci-fi characters, Caesar could be any one of us. While there remains a safe distance with many current onscreen ‘heroes’—after all, who has the resources of Batman or the powers of the Hulk? – Caesar somehow remains accessible. A survivor of abuse, he recognizes that evil has come as a result of a few and not all of humanity. He has been damaged but struggles to move on. Through his obsession with focusing on the eyes of his characters, Reeves shows the brokenness within Caesar with a simple glance. (After all, wasn’t it Shakespeare that claimed that the ‘eyes were the windows of the soul’?)
War puts the conflict within Caesar on full display, as he wrestles with obsession and revenge. Having endured incredible personal losses, Caesar’s battle with his inner demons takes on a visceral edge as he slowly slides into potential savagery. Anchored by his visions of Koba, the treacherous ape who led a rebellion in Dawn, Caesar’s desire for peace gradually gives way to his desire to kill. (In fact, there is even one particular dream sequence that plays out similar to Christ’s experience in the wilderness, with Koba’s voice inviting Caesar to give in to temptation and unleash his hatred.) While Caesar’s life has been touched by grace through his human friends, the scars of war, hurt and hatred left by others prevents him from fully living.
Yet, in the midst of this dark descent, there lies hope. Despite the apes’ incarceration in the ‘human zoo’, Caesar’s struggle against the Colonel provides a beacon of light for those around him. His acts of courage and defiance show his ape family that rebellion against evil doesn’t necessarily mean combat. It’s interesting to note that Reeves’ desire for this film was to depict Caesar as the ‘Moses’ of ape-kind, leading his people out of the hands of overwhelming oppression. In this regard, War take on the structure of a biblical epic, buoyed by Caesar’s desire to see his people reach the ‘promised land’ of freedom. (SPOILER ALERT: In fact, the film’s destructive avalanche even seems to echo the plight of Pharaoh’s army at the hands of the Red Sea. SPOILERS END)
Though, unlike Moses, Caesar’s hope is far less secure. Whereas Moses believed that God would intervene, Caesar’s hope frequently lies within himself. Aware that he bears responsibility for the ape capture in the first place, he places the burden of freedom upon himself. However, in doing so, his inner brokenness becomes more evident and he remains paralyzed. Ironically, it is only after his fellow apes remind him that ‘Apes. Together. Strong’ that Caesar remembers that true hope lies in something bigger than himself and he begins to move towards freedom once again. (If that doesn’t sound like the beating heart of a Biblical epic, I don’t know what does!)
In the end, the power of this latest batch of Apes films lies in the audience’s relationship with Caesar. Each film leaves with the question of whether we need a Caesar or whether or not we are Caesar. His courage and love remain Christ-like at times, yet his brokenness and angst mirrors so much of our own. With War wrapping up Caesar’s journey, Reeves believes that there are many more stories to tell about this iteration of Apes moving forward. Still, regardless of where this franchise goes, the impact of Serkis’ Caesar will undoubtedly echo throughout the future.
After all, the life of any good ‘Moses’ would do the same.