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Simians and humans wage grim battle in ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’

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Caesar leads the apes into battle.
Photo: Twentieth Century Fox / Courtesy

Three stars

War for the Planet of the Apes Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn. Directed by Matt Reeves. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.

Humanity has never come across especially well in the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise, but the first two films—Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)—did at least offer a few identification figures who resembled the audience. No such comfort exists in War for the Planet of the Apes, which boldly asks viewers to reject our own kind and root wholeheartedly for simian victory. As ever, the motion-capture performances, anchored by Andy Serkis in the role of head chimp Caesar, are dazzlingly expressive enough to inspire plenty of cross-species empathy. So it’s a shame that War feels the need to stack the deck by making the movie’s handful of humans cartoonishly evil, complexity be damned.

That might not feel so misguided had director Matt Reeves—who previously directed Dawn, and co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Bomback—not conceived this third chapter as a deadly serious homage to various classic war films. (Don’t bother suggesting Ape-ocalypse Now—believe it or not, that’s actually in the movie.) Two years have passed since we last saw Caesar readying himself for sustained battle, and what remains of the human race has seemingly regressed, with some people even lacking the ability to speak. Caesar willingly takes in a mute little girl (Amiah Miller) who has been orphaned, but his fundamental decency is sorely tested by a crazed sadist known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson, doing a sort of combination Kurtz and Kilgore), who’s determined to exterminate the apes, starting with Caesar’s family. What follows is a quest for revenge that takes an unexpected turn for the truly horrific, featuring imagery that recalls Vietnam and (no kidding) Nazi concentration camps.

What’s weird and slightly frustrating about War for the Planet of the Apes is the way that Reeves constantly evokes other war movies while mostly avoiding scenes involving actual warfare. With humanity reduced to genocidal aggression plus one silent moppet, thereby creating a conveniently black-and-white moral landscape, there’s little opportunity for subtle character work. The film needs exciting set pieces to fill the void, and surprisingly few are forthcoming. A grim mood takes hold early on and never dissipates, despite game efforts at comic relief from Steve Zahn as a new, mentally shaky chimpanzee known as Bad Ape. Serkis remains a marvel, especially when you consider that he’s never technically onscreen, but the soulfulness he invests in Caesar’s expressions and movements lacks a worthy context. At its best, War creates some productive cognitive dissonance by completely and decisively inverting our allegiance. Real-world resonance lurks in that idea, but this movie is too busy evoking other movies to do justice to it.

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