Straw Ape: How War for the Planet of the Apes Fails Where It's Predecessors Succeed
Hey, what do you get when you combine a 'plot' with a 'straw man'? A plot typified by a misrepresented set-up and a lack of the according structure to reach a specific, planned outcome, that's what! HAHAHAHAHA....!
Apologies for the misrepresented set-up. That was no joke, not exactly. Combing those two elements is a punchline at the expense of the audience.
Say you want to write a heist movie with a twist ending, a double-cross. A smartly written plot would drop hints and clues that structurally dictate the identity and potential motive of the eventual double-crosser, thus giving that plot point heft and impact. A straw plot would take said double-crosser and paint them intentionally as a sympathetic character, maybe even a crucial supporting character, to mislead the audience. This character would do things within their character's initial writing, brave things or risky things that eliminate them from suspicion. Thus, when time comes for the double cross, their decision totally lacks functionality and impact. Well, except confusion. Think plots like The Dark Knight Rises with Talia al Ghul or Prometheus with its revelation of Vickers' identity. These movies had late plot movements that lacked concert with the earlier narrative.
A straw plot leaves you with a nagging feeling of, wait, what? Why?
War deserves every bit of the critical love for it’s depiction of an ape community, creating a level of empathy never before seen in a feature film. We see the apes, we connect with their emotions. We feel what they feel. And we feel it knowing the enemy who is hurts them is, essentially, us. That’s the essence of the film. What it is trying to achieve and say.
But does the plot function or is it a straw plot? One need look closely. How a car looks when it is being driven is different from how well it drives. Does it move from plot-point to plot-point in concert with the events in the story? Do characters maintain their motivation and are their logical consequences for their choices? Does the narrative structure support all of this? Under the hood, fundamental nuts and bolts are put together in odd ways.
For a good example of an accomplishment in this functional balancing act, look no further than the two previous films. In Rise, the story’s thrust hinged on James Franco’s Will and his quest to cure his fathers’ dementia. It only then transitions into a story about Caesar after the first act. But by then, the plot had bridged that gap neatly. Will adopts Caesar, the child of an ape treated with the super serum, and upon realizing the serum’s effectiveness Will uses it to treat his own father. With Will’s father cured, Will’s dramatic purpose has all but been solved within the first act of the film - and Caesar is now in the picture to carry it the rest of the way. The film then jumps into a conventional heroes journey, with Caesar recognizing he exists in a human world and going on to discover his true identity, eventually rising to lead a community of apes. The structure of the plot dictates that Caesar’s story begins through Will’s but nicely takes the handoff to become the dramatic narrative of the film. While more conventional, the film functions. Everyone has a motive, a purpose, and tension within their stories.
In Dawn, the story is more complex and rich. The film begins and ends as Caesar’s. We implicitly understand this to be so based on the first film. With Caesar outright as the central character, the film must then build around him. His motivation is clearly laid out from the start: as the leader of a larger community of apes, a husband with a father, his motivation is to protect his community. When his community come across the first humans in a decade, the dramatic tension is immediate: how can the two sides coexist? Resisting the urge to split the perspectives too drastically (and thus the plot), the film remains focused on Caesar. How does it do this? It creates contrasting characters to highlight Caesar’s precarious political and personal situation, book-ending him by two other characters. Koba, his lieutenant, and Malcolm, a human. Koba, an ape like Caesar, resents and distrusts humans. Malcolm is a kindred spirit, a pacifist and a father, like Caesar. The film smartly uses these two characters to drive Caesar’s story forward. As those two characters pull Caesar in opposite directions, the dramatic tension – how do these two sides coexist – is in the foreground through the plot. The film functions, even more successfully than the original, because the motive, purpose, and tension of all the characters blend seamlessly from plot.
This level of functionality, though, hits a snag in War. The reason it does not sink the film is because the misfire is not with the central character, Caesar, but with his foil, The Colonel. The misstep with the Colonel is so slight and innocuous; you would be hard-pressed to put your finger on it. But it bumps the plot just enough off course to not feel right.
Some public criticism levied against the character has come close but misses the point. The presumptive argument is that the Colonel is underdeveloped. Some deduce that the problem is the Colonel appears for roughly thirty seconds in the first half of the movie. But is it an issue that he’s only on screen for such a short time? Not quite.
If anything, the Colonel receives a prime introduction into the film. In his 30 seconds, he infiltrates and murders Caesar’s wife as well as son, mistaking the son for Caesar. That’s a pretty effective 30 seconds to be on screen. With a trilogy that revolves entirely around Caesar (and the second film focused on developing Caesar’s personal life), this is a powerful dramatic action. Other than dropping a WMD on the entire ape tribe and wiping out the species (which obviously couldn’t happen), what more damaging thing could be committed to Caesar?
The film films that 30 seconds for everything it’s worth. It firmly establishes the Colonel’s dramatic motive, purpose, and tension: in order to establish humans as the dominant species and destroy the ape species, can he best Caesar? It establishes Caesar’s dramatic motive, purpose, and tension: to seek revenge for his family's death by killing the Colonel, but at what risk to his own humanity (apemanity)? In 30 seconds, this scene pits the Colonel as Caesar’s foil, the target of Caesar’s rage, and points the plot on the trajectory towards its conclusion.
So then what issues does the Colonel have that render the film a straw plot? His motive, purpose, and tension are, in fact, a lie. After the Colonel’s act of violence, those things seems clear. But they are not. The film makes a curious narrative choice.
The Colonel sees Caesar after killing his wife and child. He knows Caesar is not dead. When Caesar pursues him then, we expect this will lead to a confrontation. But no, Caesar finds the army encampment and learns the Colonel is not there and the army is moving on. Moving on? Why?
This is where the plot functionality of the film makes a misstep. To function, drama needs to place obstacles in the way of the dramatic purpose of our main character. This doesn’t mean physically moving that purpose further away unless under the proper conditions, such as that of a chase movie. That’s not what War is about (for an example, just break down Mad Max: Fury Road). Therefore, the army and the Colonel shouldn't move on. The Colonel needs to defeat Caesar. The Colonel needs to destroy the ape species. There needs to be a standoff. There needs to be a war. Why move these two characters away from eachother?
The film gamely tries to hint that something greater is afoot. It teases there is something under the surface. We meet the mute girl, Nova. We meet the mute soldiers who were left for dead by the army. These hints, though, are getting in the way. Caesar is not supposed to solve a mystery, Caesar is supposed to kill the Colonel. Caesar’s purpose is now being obstructed by problem-solving.
An hour and twenty or so minutes into the film, when Caesar finally locates the army at an abandoned weapons depot, we have now been led down a new path. We've crossed the Rubicon, led down a plot path that promises we will receive all of our answers. But the answers we get are to a question we didn’t ask. The Colonel has brought has managed to capture all the apes and put them into labor. This is counter-intuitive based on all we know about the Colonel, that he wants the apes dead. Now he wants them as slaves? That deep into the film, this plot point is a somewhat jarring revelation.
The rest of the film explains this away with further mystery. The Colonel is an off-shoot of what is left of the US Military and he and his former superiors are at war for what's left. We learn that, no, the threat the Colonel fears is not the apes - it's other humans. The motive we were led to believe, that he wanted all the apes dead, at some point changes off-screen (or maybe never really changed) and becomes the need to win a tribal war. The war for the planet is not about the war between apes and humans - it's the war between humans. While this is undeniably compelling, it renders the film a straw plot.
Going all the way back to the very first moments of the film, when soldiers silently move through the forest to assault the ape home. That wasn't a capture mission - that was a kill mission. Not 10 minutes later, the Colonel shows up not to capture Caesar - but to kill Caesar. The film has misrepresented the set-up.
Had the film instead chosen to represent the Colonel's motive from the start with the raid being a capture mission by, for instance, having a few of the Colonel's soldiers escape with prisoners after the first raid, that would suggest his ulterior motive. Caesar and his lieutenants could express confusion, asking why the Colonel would take prisoners. Instead, we are left to follow a misrepresented set-up.
Just because it’s a straw plot doesn’t mean War of the Planet of the Apes is a bad movie. Far from it; it is a wonderful film. Everything having to do with Caesar is beautifully rendered and emoted, his story of ascension from the beginning of the trilogy to end is drawn as a modern myth. In this third film, he is haunted by the ghost of Koba, the ape who was consumed by hatred and ultimately instigated the conflict between apes and humans. But Caesar’s struggle is not only internal, it is external, stoked by the forces of an oppressive world.
Sometimes there are issues in a film we can't pinpoint. Because they are the invisible elements, the pieces we have to see in our minds eye. Much of the time, these invisible elements come back to the screenplay. A straw plot isn't the death knell for a film, but an indicator of the lack of function written on the page. Sometimes a War is over before the first shot.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys has worked six years in the public relations industry rubbing shoulders with movie stars (who ignored him) to athletes (who tolerated him). He likes tiki-taka football, jelly beans, and arguing with Bruce about everything.