War for the Planet of the Apes

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

The latest “Planet of the Apes” movie has all the earmarks of what is wrong in Hollywood. It’s one of those dreaded hyphenate reboot-prequel movies, there’s a child sidekick and more than half the characters are computer generated. That should be three strikes you’re out, but “War for the Planet of the Apes” transcends all that monkey business as an expertly made popcorn flick.

The story picks up two years after “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and brings us one step closer to the events of the very first “Apes” film from 1968. Human civilization has crumbled after a simian-flu wiped out most of humanity while empowering the apes. The primates, led by aging hero ape Caesar (Andy Serkis), have created a comfortable forest world for themselves along the California/Oregon border.

It’s a peaceful place until a human commando team, under the orders of a ruthless Colonel Kurtzian leader named McCullough (Woody Harrelson), stage a brutal raid. "We must abandon our humanity to save humanity," he says. Instead of Born to Kill written on their helmets these soldiers have slogans like Bedtime for Bonzo emblazoned up top.

Later, when McCullough kills Cesar’s wife and son he seeks out the Colonel. His search for revenge leads him to an ape prison camp, kick starting the film’s “Ape-pocalypse Now” section. It’s guerrilla warfare, but this time it’s personal.

“If we lose,” McCullough says, “it will be a planet of apes.” Duh. Isn’t that kind of the point of these movies?

“War for the Planet of the Apes” is a summer tentpole movie that fits into the franchise but can be enjoyed as a standalone. Director Matt Reeves creates exciting action sequences but there's more to the movie event explosions and gunfire. A brief recap brings us up to speed, then we’re thrown into the world. Cesar wants to be left alone but the murder of his family ignites within him complex, contradictory emotions, the desire to protect his ape herd while getting revenge. Those feelings are the engine that drives the movie but they are wrapped around a blockbuster that doesn't feel like a blockbuster. It's quiet—most of the apes speak in sign language—with a philosophical edge not usually found in big summer releases.

Much of that is due to a brilliant MoCap performance from Andy Serkis. In a genre not known for subtlety he brings a range of emotion to Cesar. Selfless, melancholic and compassionate, his take on the ape character is layered and made all the more remarkable given the computer generated process that goes into creating it.

Serkis is aided by Karin Konoval as orangutan Maurice, who complex emotions with little to no dialogue. Less welcome, although not fatal, is Steve Zahn’s Jar Jar Binks-esque Bad Ape. He’s the film’s comic relief but his goofy gags and slapstick often feel slightly out of place in a movie that is otherwise concerned with classic themes like fear of the other and revenge.

Like all good speculative fiction “War for the Planet of the Apes” isn’t just a movie about the wild idea of apes vs. humans. With deeply rooted ideas about the nature of compassion and community, it also contains timely ideas for a troubled world. In one tense scene child sidekick Nova (Amiah Miller) risks everything to bring food and water to Cesar, subtly suggesting that even in the darkest times kindness can still exist. It’s a rare movie, an intimate epic brimming with food for thought while simultaneously satisfying the need to watch apes on horseback.

4 ½ STARS