Disclaimer: This post contains spoilers for War for the Planet of the Apes.
War for the Planet of the Apes premiered across the United States last night, and since Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of my favorite movies, I was front and center to catch the latest film in this incredible series (literally, I was seated in the second row from the front, dead center). By the time the credits rolled, I was convinced I had seen not a modern day classic, but an all-time treatise on filmmaking. War is the best reviewed film in the series, and director Matt Reeves is firing on all cylinders, doing things with CGI characters that other filmmakers aren't even conceiving.
It isn't only Matt Reeves' effects work which wows. Reeves handles his subjects and story with depth, fleshing out his characters, and deftly moving from plot point to plot point with nary a hiccup in pacing, and throughout, he laces his scenes with references upon references. From Apocalypse Now to the original Planet Of The Apes, there are Easter eggs abound. Some of his deepest cuts in the movie, though, circle around stories from the Bible. Speaking back in April, Matt Reeves explained his references for his latest movie by discussing all the films they went back and watched to pull for inspiration:
"We watched Bridge on the River Kwai. We watched The Great Escape. We watched Biblical epics, because I really felt like this movie had to have a Biblical aspect to it. We watched Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments. We didn't go, like, 'Let's take a little bit of this, a little bit of that.' When you surround yourself with something that feels emotionally right, there are connections that make sense to you that somebody else might not see [the films] informed the vibe we felt about this thing."
By the time the movie was up, those references to Biblical epics were definitely visceral, but not everybody is familiar with them. Here's a list of all of the homages to the Bible that I could think of, and if I missed any, hit me up in the comments below!
1. Spies In A Promised Land
Fairly early in the film, Caesar's son, Blue Eyes, and his companion, Lake, return from a mission. The two report that they've found a new home for the apes, past enemy lines and across a desert. In the Old Testament story of Moses (lots more of him to come!), 12 spies from the tribes of Israel were sent to spy on the land of Canaan -- Israel's promised land and future home. In that story, only two of the spies came back and had a positive report, Caleb and Joshua. Just like in the Biblical story, there was a debate within the tribe of apes over whether they should head into the land immediately or not. Caesar would send them shortly after the Colonel's attack.
2. Haunted By A Murder
Before Moses became famous for leading his people out of Egypt across the Red Sea, he grew up in Pharaoh's household. That came to an end one day when he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite. Angry, Moses killed the Egyptian and the guilt he would feel over the action would come back to him later in life. Similarly, Caesar still feels the guilt over killing Koba, an event depicted in Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. It is, as Caesar sees it, his one great flaw and something that, for him, drives a wedge between him and the other apes, similar to the wedge that was put between Moses and Pharaoh's court.
3. Let My People Go!
When Caesar is captured in the film, he is brought before the Colonel for a special negotiation. Later, even as Caesar makes mischief for the Colonel, he is still given an audience with the leader of the human army. It is apparent that Caesar is held in a different regard when compared with the other apes. Likewise, Moses -- a murderer and Jew -- is treated with respect by Pharaoh in the Biblical book of Exodus and is given many audiences with which to make his case for the lives of his people.
4. Leave Him!
Some of Caesar's best scenes in the trilogy are his emotional outbursts. While normally a reserved character who leads by example, Caesar has an epic shout of "No!" in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Here, when an ape is being whipped for a mistake at the wall, Caesar shouts for the beating to stop. This interference is akin to when Moses interceded on behalf of an Israelite slave in the book of Exodus, and I've already explained what that led to.
5. A Silent Beating
While all of the references thus far have been about Moses and the book of Exodus, there are several other Biblical homages in the story. When Caesar stops the whipping, he is brought before the Colonel and is himself whipped. Caesar defiantly takes the beating in silence. In the New Testament gospels, Jesus is arrested by the Romans and is severely whipped. He is described as having suffered this beating, like Caesar, without saying a word.
Betrayal is a huge part of many stories, so this connection is a bit weak, but just as Jesus was betrayed by Judas, a member of his inner circle, Caesar is betrayed by Winter, an ape in his own group. This betrayal leads to Caesar embarking on his fateful trip. The betrayal that Jesus faces in the New Testament gospel stories is also a betrayal of a Jew by Jews into the hands of the Romans. In War, apes, called "donkeys" by the humans they work for, betray the other apes for their own benefit.
7. Savior on a Cross
When Caesar comes upon the human military base, he sees several metal crosses in the snow. Attached to these are Caesar's apes, a frightening site for the leader to behold. In the first century, and even before, the Romans were known for putting prisoners on crosses as a means of intimidating the people they held in subjugation. After being captured, Caesar is eventually put on one of these crosses for all of the other apes to see, a clear reference to Jesus' crucifixion. The entire Christian religion is built around the idea that Jesus' trip to the cross brings eternal life to all people. Caesar's crucifixion isn't quite so powerful (or deadly), but it is clear that the apes, who are finally fed and watered, see his suffering on the cross as directly related to their own survival.
In the New Testament stories, Jesus is buried and resurrected three days later. Christian baptism itself is viewed as a way for believers to join Jesus in the grave and his resurrection. The apes in War ultimately free their bondage by descending down into the ground (burial) and emerging out shortly after (resurrection). It's a small nod to Christian tradition, but a powerful one.
A rather obscure story from the Old Testament is the one about the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. In that story, he is punished with insanity. Nebuchadnezzar loses his speech, strips himself of his clothes, and goes to live among the cattle, a madness known as 'boanthropy.' The Colonel fears this same madness falling on his own people in the form of a sickness which causes humans to become mute. The next step, he fears, is becoming more and more primitive until, he proclaims to Caesar, humans would only be the apes' -- you guessed it -- 'cattle.'
10. An Act of God
The most memorable thing about the Exodus story for most people are the many plagues and miracles visited upon the Egyptians. Matt Reeves kept the tone of War far from anything where a miracle would be acceptable, but that doesn't mean he didn't leave room for a disaster of Biblical proportions. Shortly after the Colonel's army is defeated, the snow at the top of the base's mountain setting comes loose and an avalanche buries the huge human army standing victorious at the bottom. Since snow is really just frozen water, this scene calls to mind the conclusion of the Exodus escape when the waters of the Red Sea, split apart for the safe passage of the Israelites, collapse and bury Pharaoh's army.
11. The Death of Caesar
Just as the movie is concluding, the apes arrive at their home, a forest on the banks of a crystalline lake. Caesar himself looks on in a mix of joy and sorrow. His long-time ally, Maurice, soon learns that Caesar is dying and will never enter this new ape paradise. In the book of Exodus, Moses leads the Israelites for forty years, but because of a grave sin he committed, he is told that he'll never be able to enter the promised land. Instead, Moses goes to a high place and perishes while looking down on the land of Canaan. Caesar, having committed his own sin -- in his eyes -- of being like Koba and allowing his hate to rule him, has a similar fate. In the reality of the movie, this is exactly what caused his death. Because he pursued a final act of vengeance against the Colonel, he put himself into position to be shot with the crossbow bolt that would later kill him. Had he not allowed his anger and hate to consume him, he'd have likely escaped with the other apes and made it, healthy, to the apes' own promised land.
Even with all of these references, Matt Reeves didn't just copy-and-paste his story. War For The Planet Of The Apes is one of my all-time bangers and the fact that these homages to famed Biblical epics are strewn throughout only makes the movie deeper and suitable for many viewings and analyses. And, as I mentioned before, these references don't even include the numerous winks to war movies, post-apocalyptic films, and the original series of films. What an excellent film!
Did I miss anything? If so, tell me on Twitter at @LRM_Brian or in the comments below!