A few thousand years from now, alien anthropologists sifting through the remnants of our once-proud civilization may survey Hollywood's 21st century simian-themed blockbusters with some confusion. Based on their titles, shouldn't "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" (2014) come before "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (2011)?
A quick recap may be in order. "Rise," the first in a series of prequels to the original "Apes" movies, chronicled the outbreak of a simian virus that birthed a new line of super-intelligent apes and initiated the fall of man. "Dawn" caught up with the action a decade later, amid escalating tensions between the apes and their fast-dwindling homo sapiens counterparts.
All this is helpfully summarized at the beginning of "War for the Planet of the Apes," whose title may be cause for still further bewilderment. By the often bloody and bombastic standards of the genre, this masterful third chapter is not much of a war movie at all. Viewers expecting an epic clash between two equally vicious primate factions may be surprised — though not, I imagine, disappointed — by the eerie calm that hangs over this picture, and by the grace and restraint with which the writer-director Matt Reeves guides the story from its explosive beginning to its elegiac finale.
Perhaps that last part won't be so surprising. Reeves, after all, was the filmmaker who gave "Dawn" its unusual gravity and emotional grandeur, veering away from the high-spirited "Rise" (brilliantly directed in its own right by Rupert Wyatt) in pursuit of something altogether darker and more despairing. "War," co-written by Reeves and Mark Bomback, completes this progression with breathtaking formal beauty and tonal control. It would be hard to overstate just how singular this picture feels in its seriousness of purpose and in its cumulative power to enthrall and astonish.
Of course, seriousness (to say nothing of self-seriousness) is nothing new on the blockbuster landscape, and these three recent "Apes" movies are hardly the first of their kind to traffic in grim allegories of oppression and xenophobia. The crucial difference here is that the series' vision seems to have evolved in sync with the visual-effects technology, rather than being eclipsed by it. It's the rare Hollywood reboot that really does feel like the product of a higher intelligence.
The sharpest mind here belongs, as ever, to Caesar, the grave and eloquent chimpanzee leader played by Andy Serkis in another seamless melding of digital expertise and actorly soul. Having defeated the vicious rebel bonobo known as Koba in "Dawn," Caesar now presides over an advanced Bay Area ape community that, despite its peace-loving ways, is repeatedly targeted by an encroaching human army.
Even Caesar's seemingly infinite patience wears thin after a fresh round of casualties, the cruelest of which is exacted by the army's maniacal leader, known only as the Colonel (a terrific Woody Harrelson). Spurred on by visions of Koba's bloodthirsty ghost, Caesar puts aside his pacifist impulses and sets out to take the Colonel down, accompanied by such sidekicks as his right-hand chimp Rocket (Terry Notary), his gorilla deputy Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) and, best of all, Maurice (Karin Konoval), still the loveliest orangutan to walk the earth.
The journey to the Colonel's compound is paved with stunning backdrops, namely a series of snowy mountain vistas that, as shot by cinematographer Michael Seresin on gorgeous 65-millimeter film, give the movie a bleakness and desolation all its own. Naturally there are harrowing complications and unexpected meetings in store, and it is a measure of the underlying compassion of "War for the Planet of the Apes," the optimism beneath its apocalyptic gloom, that these tense encounters tend to give rise to new friendships more often than not.
One enemy turned comrade is a wily zoo refugee, named "Bad Ape" by his former captors; he's wonderfully played by Steve Zahn, bringing some welcome levity to the proceedings while enriching our sense of what has become of the world's broader ape population. The other newcomer is a courageous young human girl named Nova (Amiah Miller), who has been stricken mute by the virus.
Nova is not alone. Even as the apes' language skills continue to evolve — most of them communicate via (helpfully subtitled) sign language, though several, like Caesar, have become proficient English speakers — many of the humans who survived the virus' initial onslaught are now losing the gift of speech. It is in many ways a fate worse than death, and it explains the fanatical extremism of the Colonel and his followers, who are ruthless about destroying not only the apes but also the infected humans within their own ranks.
Under these circumstances, it's fitting that silence should become such a powerful force in "War for the Planet of the Apes," whose stately, never-draggy 142-minute running time features several gloriously talk-free passages. Reeves, an instinctively visual storyteller, likes to hold his characters in extended close-up, and he is understandably eager to showcase his ape ensemble, whose expressive twitches and gestures attest to the latest advances in performance-capture technology.
Serkis' work as Caesar, much like his turn as Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" movies, by now exists in a realm beyond praise or even measurable achievement; you feel this character's goodness, but also his roiling internal conflict, in his every digital atom.
Most of the spoken dialogue, by contrast, falls to Harrelson's Colonel, a worthy new adversary who at one point gets a deranged, nihilistic monologue that further underscores his resemblance to Col. Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now." That's just one of a few classics that Reeves has cited as overt influences, including the Clint Eastwood western "The Outlaw Josey Wales," biblical epics like "The Ten Commandments," and the World War II-era classics "The Great Escape" and "The Bridge on the River Kwai."
Mercifully, "War for the Planet of the Apes" feels like an inspired synthesis rather than a slavish imitation, and its inspirations flow organically from the material. The "River Kwai" comparison seems especially apt once Caesar is captured and thrown into a simian labor camp, at which point the movie becomes a full-blown prison-break thriller, rich in slow-burning suspense and tactical ingenuity. (Bonus points, too, for the resourceful use of weaponized ape feces.)
We root for the apes, of course — how could we not? — and Reeves does not shy away from heightening our sense of alienation from our own stupid, prideful and empathy-deficient species. Humanity here is a largely faceless parade of white-uniformed soldiers, as blank and menacing as a squad of Imperial Stormtroopers. The subversion of our sympathies is bracing, and indeed the spectacle of mankind's impending destruction is the sort of vicarious pleasure that the movies have always been well equipped to provide.
But the moral here, which is sufficiently nuanced that it has taken three movies to come into focus, isn't that mankind deserves extinction. It's that we are obliged to protect and fight for humanity wherever we happen to find it, and that the very question of one's humanity is less a matter of interspecies difference than a condition of the heart.
The film's most haunting scene unfolds between an ape and a human on opposite sides of a cage. I won't specify which is the occupant and which is the onlooker, and Reeves himself is wise enough to let Michael Giacchino's piercingly beautiful score do most of the talking. Suffice to say that what passes between these two characters — a container of water, a wordless gaze — achieves a catharsis that almost defies understanding.
It's a small, fleeting moment, but like the rest of this indelibly soul-stirring movie, it feels like nothing less than a respite from the end of the world.
‘War for the Planet of the Apes’
Rating: PG-13, for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images
Running time: 2 hours, 22 minutes
Playing: In general release