That Which Is Caesar’s: Apes and Apotheosis

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I’m not really sure what happened with War for the Planet of the Apes. It was like the executives sat down and said, “Yeah, the last two were good, but let’s do something different. Let’s do something like Unbroken meets Predator meets The Great Escape.” Someone may have said, “You realize our main characters are apes, right?” but nobody listened (thank goodness).

There are many, many reasons I loved this film – I sat there, shocked, as I realized I was watching an incredible story unfold, not just another Apes movie. So instead of giving a recap or a review, I’m going to wildly ramble talk, as requested, about exactly why this movie landed smack in the center of my Favorite Movies list.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

Essentially, this move was incredible because it had 

GUTS.

(Literally and figuratively, but we’re focusing on the figurative.)

It took risks and made the hard choices over and over again, especially regarding Caesar – and this is where I want to discuss apotheosis.

The dictionary describes apotheosis as ‘the elevation of someone to a divine status.’ In the first film, we saw Caesar’s origin story – how he was injected with an experimental drug at a young age and raised by loving humans. We watched as he became aware of the maltreatment of other apes, we watched his influences shape who he was, and in the second film we saw his rise. We saw his apotheosis.

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At the beginning of War, we see Caesar still there, still viewed with reverence and awe by the other apes. In fact, the first time he shows up, we don’t immediately see him – but we see the other apes bow, back away, raise their hands, and show deference. We know immediately where Caesar stands and exactly how the other apes feel about him. We even know how the humans feel about him – he’s the one they’re searching for, because they know his importance. They know if they kill Caesar, they win.

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And then we get our inciting incident. In a world of killing, two deaths occur – the deaths of Caesar’s wife and oldest son, at the hands of a radical Colonel; and suddenly, with one blow, Caesar loses his divine status. We don’t immediately realize this, but right then, at that moment, his ‘divine’ status is cut away and he becomes a raw, bleeding mortal.

And, in a moment of uncharacteristic bad judgment, he makes a poor decision. He decides to leave his apes – to set them off on a trail toward a new, safe home, but to leave them nonetheless. He even gives them an excuse – the soldiers won’t follow the apes; they want him anyway, and he’s going to kill the Colonel. This is an excuse his three closest warriors and friends aren’t willing to let him get away with, and they accompany him on his search for the man who killed his family.

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Everything about this is handled exquisitely. We the viewers have come to view Caesar with respect, but the movie does its best to show us not what Caesar’s apes see, but what Caesar’s friends see. We watch as Caesar’s apotheosis is stripped away from him, and we can blame the Colonel for killing his family – but we can also blame Caesar, for allowing his impulses to overcome his better judgment. Because of his decision to leave his apes, they’re captured and put into a labor camp. Because of his decision, one of his closest, most loyal friends is killed. And then Caesar, too, is captured.

We watch as Caesar is betrayed, beaten, taunted, and humiliated. Not is his status toppled by outside forces – he (accidentally…probably) murders one of his own apes, and has to deal with the guilt. He is dragged through the mud literally and figuratively, but does he stand tall and proud through the process?

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Well, no, actually. He becomes vulnerable and defeated; even hopeless. His apes were captured thanks to his desertion, and now he must face the realization that, to them, he’s no longer on a pedestal. He’s one of them – weak, starving, facing torment and death. There’s nothing to hold onto. It’s an all-time low. The only other time I’ve seen a hero undergo this kind of torment was Logan, where something similar and incredible happened.

Our hero undergoes a second apotheosis. This time, however, he doesn’t get there on his own. Which is where we get to the second point —

HOPE.

This is a war film. It’s not a summer popcorn flick, it’s not an action romp, it’s not a fun, lighthearted adventure. This is a war film, plain and simple. It’s about choosing sides, it’s about making morally difficult decisions, it’s about revenge and ethics and asks us, what makes a hero? What breaks one?

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And yet, throughout the story, hope is woven. Maurice, the orangutan Caesar rescued in the first film, adopts a young human girl who can’t speak purely out of selflessness. ‘She’ll die out here alone,’ he tells Caesar, who grudgingly lets him bring her along despite the fact he’s not exactly in love with humans right now.

Caesar himself is extremely principled and just through most of the film, except for moments where his hatred gets the better of him. His closest friends display loyalty and self-sacrifice, even softening toward the girl who comes to be called Nova. In contrast with the speechless Nova is a very talkative former zoo chimp simply called Bad Ape, who shows tremendous (if reluctant) courage in the face of his greatest fears. Rocket, Caesar’s lieutenant, gets himself caught by the Colonel’s men to distract them from seeing Nova – who had walked into the enemy camp in order to save Caesar’s life.

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THREE-DIMENSIONALITY

Our main characters, although they aren’t human, show a deeper kind of humanity than most main characters in films populated entirely by people. Characters in the film show enormous love, bravery, selflessness, kindness, wisdom, and willingness to do the right thing no matter how difficult. This makes the dark deeds they do stand out in stark contrast, and the story doesn’t shy away from the fact that Caesar’s goodness doesn’t justify the hatred that threatens to consume him.

In fact, Caesar himself realizes he’s becoming more and more like Koba, the rogue chimpanzee who began the war between humans and apes in Dawn.

Which is where we return to Caesar’s second apotheosis.

The first time around, he elevated himself. The second time around, he needed help – and he got it, not only from his people and his friends, but from Nova. A human, the species currently driving Caesar’s hate, is the one who opens his eyes to the reality he has created. Caesar realizes that the Colonel isn’t his worst enemy – Caesar’s worst enemy is Caesar himself.

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Instead of allowing this knowledge to sink him into inescapable despair, Caesar uses the realization to get back to his feet. It reignites the dying flame inside him, reminding him of his true purpose – to protect the people he loves, to defend them. to take them the only place he’s ever wanted to go: home.

Where Caesar’s earlier decision was leave your people, get revenge, he makes a new decision – to protect his people and get the home, no matter what it takes. His reclaimed – and somewhat newfound – heroism are so inspiring, in fact, that a traitor who had continually mocked and beaten him saves his life at the cost of his own. (The film also shows another side of this – we watch a human soldier see Caesar’s justice and mercy, struggle with the knowledge, and do the wrong thing anyway. Like I said, this movie doesn’t take the easy way out.)

Everything about this movie was beautiful. The points it made, the questions it asked, the characterization – even the technical aspects were stunning. The animation was the best I’ve ever seen. The soundtrack was original. The humor made me laugh, the emotional moments made me cry. We even watch Caesar physically age throughout the film as hatred, weariness, exhaustion, and sorrow take their toll. The amount of detail shown in this movie is stunning.

Also, let me tell you something – in any given story, be it an anime or a book series, I tend to care about one character. Occasionally there are two or three others in whom I’m mildly invested, but it’s rare.

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In War for the Planet of the Apes, I cared. I cared about Caesar, Rocket, Maurice, Luca, Nova, Bad Ape, Lake, Red Donkey, Cornelius – heck, I even cared about Winter. I cared about the cause as a whole. While I didn’t think the Colonel was a mind-blowing villain, the theme as antagonist was a solid and understandable one. I literally can’t name a single story where I cared about this many characters simultaneously. (It’s exhausting and I’m not sure how people do it all the time. Do people do this all the time? Holy moly.)

THE ENDING

I love bittersweet endings. I need the story to have had depths and heights, and I need the ending to match. I don’t like happily-ever-after endings where everyone is alive and well, but I don’t like tragic, fatalistic endings, either. My ideal ending is a difficult one; a just ending, one that fulfills you and probably makes you cry. I know talking about the ending is a huge spoiler, but this entire post has been a spoiler anyway.

Caesar dies, and it had to happen. Much like in Logan, the things the character has been through, the things the character has done, call for some kind of equal sacrifice. Anything else would be anticlimactic.

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After Caesar’s reckless behavior has caused immense pain and death, he doesn’t get to ride happily into the sunset. He gets to see his people safe and happy, but his actions catch up to him. In some ways, he killed himself. His actions spurred tragedy. His self-sacrifice got everyone out of that tragedy, but he has become a reflection of everything he believed and stood for. He believed killing the Colonel was justice, because the Colonel had killed people he loved – but Caesar’s own need for revenge resulted in the same thing. The ending is just and fair, yes, and it closes off the movie with an overload of emotion – we don’t want it, but we understand it.

He is the hero once again, and his death is the final act of his second apotheosis.

After reminding himself and his people what hope is, what justice is, what humanity is, Caesar is rendered that which is his. Finally, he has brought his people home. And that’s all he ever really wanted.

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