The recent prequels to the “Planet of the Apes” films are prime examples of revitalizing, honoring and transcending familiar source material. They have created their iconic simian characters through photo-realistic performance capture rather than actors in monkey suits, deepened the story from campy action adventure to moving drama, and alluded to contemporary issues of bigotry, xenophobia and perpetual war. The new films have created a core of solidly grounded realism in a spectacular fantasy world.
It all reaches a breathtaking climax in “War for the Planet of the Apes.” Visually, the film is gorgeous, with complex but clearly presented battles and utterly lifelike computer-generated anthropoids perfectly meshed with on-camera performers. Creatively, it’s blessed with Andy Serkis as the lead actor, playing the ape leader Caesar for the third time. His work, flawlessly voiced and acted through motion capture, is stunning start to stop, though he never appears directly on-screen.
The plot returns us to a realm familiar from previous films. A “simian flu” pandemic has decimated the human population while boosting the intelligence of apes. Mankind’s remaining survivors and their likely successor species live far apart, apes in forested encampments and humans in compounds salvaged from scraps of their old civilization’s infrastructure. Staying distant, each side has avoided skirmishes for territory and control.
By the time we re-enter the story, the apes have evolved over about 15 years, now communicating complex ideas through speech or American Sign Language. Humans have been changed by the plague, as well, many moving closer to violent primal urges. That we meet them at the beginning in military camo, crawling in to ambush a peaceful ape clan, isn’t much of a spoiler given the film’s title.
The frantic back-and-forth combat between well weaponized humans and stronger, faster apes is the kind of alarming, agonizing-yet-exciting firefight that has been director Matt Reeves’ signature since 2008’s “Cloverfield.” Just as that giant monster epic powerfully touched on post-9/11 anxieties, his second “Apes” film explores socially charged themes fitting a dark time. Shortly after a post-combat cease-fire is brokered between the species, a devastating new attack is launched by the merciless, unnamed Colonel (skin-headed Woody Harrelson channeling Col. Kurtz from “Apocalypse Now”). Smoldering with fury, Caesar pursues an Old Testament retaliation, tracking the Colonel to his headquarters in the snowbound north to claim eye-for-an-eye vengeance.
Reeves gives the film the gravity of a historical war epic. In a vast military fortress, the Colonel looks down upon the world from a balcony supporting a huge American flag. With ramrod authority, he commands a legion of armed, devout followers toward a final solution to end the rise of the apes. His towering fortress wall is being built by starving ape captives brutally whipped to keep them in line. The Colonel gradually reveals his messianic religious motivations for the coming genocide, and also for one of the film’s queasiest and most horrible images, the numerous apes literally crucified at his outpost.
Bringing Caesar to such a hell on Earth is the final stage of a fascinating hero’s journey. Caesar debuted in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” as a bright young chimpanzee, loving humans because his human “father” (James Franco) truly loved him. Later, scarred by abusive human oppressors, Caesar became a Spartacus-like rebel chief focused on preserving his endangered clan.
In this third act he emerges as a scarred, bitter survivor who finds that revenge, while achievable, comes at a steep price — perhaps the cost of his soul as he battles his own inner demons. The intelligent script, co-authored by Reeves, operates in a moral gray area where evil acts are committed for understandable reasons and characters we sympathize with have serious flaws.
While there is a potent atmosphere of doom and gloom in much of the film, it’s not entirely bleak. A tagalong new character, Bad Ape (played with quirky flair by Steve Zahn), arrives just in time to give drained audiences a few breaks. He is a hoot. A runaway zoo chimp who became smarter as humans grew sicker, he is a neurotic, gonzo recluse hiding in a deserted mountain ski lodge. When he tells Caesar the Colonel’s whereabouts and is drafted to help, his anxiety is sensible, relatable and quite funny. Never have I heard a meek, tentative “OK” so laughable.
Another ray of sun amid the darkness is Nova (Amiah Miller), a mute girl who may play a significant role in upcoming Apes adventures. The series usually makes us root for apes over homo sapiens. Her touching presence offers us a chance to reassess our humanity more optimistically.
If reviving pop-culture oldies has become Hollywood’s prime directive, this trilogy’s confident work, like Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” triptych, is the way to do it. I recommend it without reservation.