There is no way to adequately capture the joy of watching War of the Planet of the Apes. It is a film which plays expertly with the audience’s expectations, deftly swapping between genre of film without ever breaking faith with the viewer. It tackles complex themes competently, and brings enough comedic relief to prevent the film from becoming overwhelmingly bleak.
More importantly, it is a brave film. In an age where we are struggling with our narratives about war and conflict, War of the Planet of the Apes shows how cinema can contribute meaningfully to our public debates.
To understand why I love this film so much, we have to talk about The Iliad. I spent my undergraduate years on the top floor of the Old Law Quad at the University of Melbourne. Tucked away like a nest, a room had been appropriated by classics students in the long distant past and inherited by each subsequent generation of classics students. On the wall of the room were a bunch of articles that people had found interesting for whatever reason. One of the pieces declared the argument that works like The Iliad need to be read as a primitive work rather than as an exemplar work. The Iliad was like a first draft of literature, upon which humanity improved. It was not a paragon which we should emulate or attempt to match.
There is one feature of The Iliad in particular which I think we ought to emulate and which I think we’ve forgotten: both of the belligerents speak extremely good Greek.
Throughout the pages of The Iliad, you hear a wide range of perspectives on the nature of the battle, on the fears of the participants, of the desires of individuals to live an excellent life. Both the Greeks and the Trojans express themselves eloquently and well. There are rogues on both sides, but nobody is entirely with clean hands in the drama.
Modern war narratives do not follow this framework established by The Iliad. Now, we have people who speak English and people who do not speak. The people who speak English talk about universal values — freedom, equality, the ability to purchase an iPhone at a reasonable price — but the people who do not speak only converse through barbaric acts, through violence, and through fear. If The Iliad were written today, there would be several chapters of backstory setting up all of the Greek characters, but Paris would have carried away the helpless Helen, devoid of agency or will. He would be indescribably ethnic, maybe a bushy beard, and she would be ravishingly beautiful and pale. Then the Anglophone Greek heroes would make impassioned speeches about how foreigners are threatening our way of life, and we’d go attack them. Goodies versus baddies. We don’t have to know what our enemies are saying because we know that they are wrong.
War of the Planet of the Apes concludes the arc set up by the first film in the trilogy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The trilogy is a tragedy in the classic sense: everything is inevitable because the participants in the film are flawed and imperfect. Rogues trigger big events which push everybody irresistibly in directions that they don’t want to go. A shot is fired by a hot head. The wrong person dies. Somebody loses their temper. Each event makes conflict seem utterly inevitable.
Incredibly, given our current political climate, neither side of the conflict is obviously at fault. The situation arises through fickle happenstance rather than Machiavellian design. But people make bad choices. Sometimes those choices feel like there’s no alternative. Sometimes, those choices are made even though the characters know that they are bad decisions. Perhaps remarkably for these films, very few decisions feel like they were made because the plot demanded a character do something stupid.
War of the Planet of the Apes is a genuinely moving experience, and a thoroughly engaging discussion about the nature of violent conflict in the face of existential threats.