The best thing about the rebooted “Planet of the Apes” film series has always been the apes. Impressive on a technical level and a dramatic one, these motion-capture creatures – representing intelligent, even soulful chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos – outshine their human counterparts in terms of emotional connection with the audience. They may not be people, but they are, in every sense of the word, fully rounded characters.
The title of the newest installment in the durable franchise, “War for the Planet of the Apes,” is something of a misnomer. Although set 15 years after the science experiment that first gave rise to smart, talking apes – and at the height of hostilities between these intellectually advanced animals and the more brutish of the people who would subjugate them – “War” includes fewer scenes of pitched battle than moments of quiet contemplation and conversation. (Note: Not all of the apes actually speak here; many still communicate using graceful sign language. In a parallel development, several humans have come to lose the ability to talk – the result of a virus known as the Simian Flu.)
All this is explained, for newcomers to the saga, in a short preamble to the action of the new film, which begins with the apes ensconced in their fortified encampment in the deep woods of Northern California. Although the apes just want to be left alone, and there is a contingent of humans who are inclined to leave them in peace, there is an incursion by renegade human commandos – led by a bloodthirsty officer known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) – that kills some of the family members of the apes’ broodingly charismatic leader Caesar, a chimpanzee played by the great Andy Serkis, whose expressive, guttural vocal performance and mimelike physicality anchors the film.
This, of course, triggers a vendetta between Caesar and the Colonel, whose troops subsequently round up and imprison many of the apes, for slave labour, just as they are moving camp to avoid further attacks. Among those captured: Caesar and his only surviving son, the infant Cornelius (Devyn Dalton).
With Caesar out of the action, though not out of commission – despite being tied, seething, to a wooden structure that lends him the silhouette of a crucified, simian Jesus – the story shifts to the small band of apes still at large, plus a couple of newcomers. This group includes, in addition the wonderfully wise elder Maurice the orangutan (Karin Konoval, a veteran of the previous two films), a mute little human girl who has been orphaned (Amiah Miller) and a talkative yet wryly doleful zoo-escapee chimp who introduces himself only as Bad Ape. In this last role, Steve Zahn delivers a memorable turn, transcending a part that might otherwise have been used for little more than comic relief, and leaving viewers with a sense of genuine compassion.
Though much of this connection can be attributed to the actors – and CGI wizards – who give life to these nonhuman characters, kudos is also due to the storytelling skills of director and co-writer Matt Reeves (“Let Me In”), who did such a fine job with the previous “Apes” film. Along with returning writer Mark Bomback, Reeves spins a gripping, visually stunning and emotionally complex tale of otherness – one that examines, against its us-vs.-them subtext, not just what it means to be human, but also humane.
“War for the Planet of the Apes” may have the body of an action film, but it has the soul of an art-house drama and the brains of a political thriller.
Four stars. Rated PG-13. Contains sci-fi violence and action, mature thematic elements and some disturbing images. 139 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.