War for the Planet of the Apes

by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD

War for the Planet of the Apes is a rich and textured film; it has impressive psychological, social and moral depth. It is about war, slavery, racism and loss at multiple levels.

Civil war General Sherman told us, “War is Hell.” World War II General Curtis LeMay said, “War is about killing people.”

The film is a powerful critique of war as a social institution. As a critique, it is especially valuable in an era when concepts of “surgical strikes” and “collateral damage” blur the central issue of killing and its moral costs. The film makes full use of the opportunity offered to dazzle and shock with explosions and carnage. More impressive is its insistence on reminding us of the singular personhood of those killed and the necessity of asking, “Is this right?”

In an obvious reference to the Nazi death camps of World War II, much of the film’s action takes place in a camp housing apes taken prisoner by the human army. They are called “donkeys”, enslaved, ill-fed and subject to horrific physical abuse. The commander of the army unit makes it clear that he regards apes, who are evolving the capacity to speak, as a threat to human hegemony on the planet. The threat is intensified because a simian virus has spread to humans, and, in humans, the disease results in adverse mutation and mental deterioration. The commander sees himself as making a desperate attempt to ward off a future in which apes will become the dominant species. In his view, warding off the threat requires the killing of all apes. His argument parallels Adolf Hitler’s views that Aryan superiority was threatened by the inferior Jewish race. The film’s linkage of war, slavery and racism is powerful. It also has special relevance to our society, constituting another critique, not the easy one against slavery, but the more unsettling one of slavery based on the “peculiar institution” in America, a race enslaved on the basis of racial inferiority.

Caesar is the film’s central figure, leading the simian forces in the war. After a battle involving many deaths on both sides, he returns four captured human soldiers safely to the commander, offering peace. An apartheid solution, each species occupying separate areas: cities for the humans, the forests for the apes. The offer is spurned and Caesar’s wife and one of his children are killed in a subsequent military attack. Caesar undertakes a heroic effort for singular vengeance, but is caught and enslaved. He sparks a rebellion which is successful in which he is mortally wounded. Nevertheless, he leads his group to asylum, an Edenic setting in which death precludes his participation. Caesar’s dying reminds us of Moses leading his people to Canaan before his death, of Martin Luther King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on the eve of his assassination. In an America, where four of presidents have been slain in office, we know how the loss of a charismatic leader, a national hero, a father figure, wrenches.

Freud described the death of one’s father as “the most significant event, the most poignant loss, of a man’s life.” The War for the Planet of the Apes evokes those feelings.

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