It takes a half-hour to get started but once it does "War for the Planet of the Apes" is one of the truly great movies of the summer. And I use the "G" word advisedly.
How on earth could THAT be, we might wonder? It's Part Three of a rebooted trio from a franchise that started 50--yes 50--years ago and has now already involved eight films and a decidedly mediocre TV series in the meantime. The next time some knee-jerk, bloviating wiseacre decries sequels as proof of the impoverishment of the Hollywood Imagination send him or her to a showing of "War for the Planet of the Apes."
It's one of the better films we're likely to see this summer despite having a pedigree that's older (and, for several decades, more mediocre) than anything out there not named Bond or cavorting in comic book costume.
It's moving and smart and jammed with action you care about rather than yawn at. It has a real brain and a real heart and has no fear whatsoever of keeping them both front and center during the cinematic season when pixels rule over everything. And it manages to do all that in a movie where we humans are the bad guys.
In this version of our beleaguered and hideously abused planet, a virus has wiped out humans and made all the apes smarter. The humans that are left are well-regimented, militaristic killers and enslavers. A particularly nasty squadron of them is under the control of Woody Harrelson, with full-shaven head a la The Rock, Yul Brynner, Lex Luthor and Common.
It's the apes we side with and root for, especially the bunch under the control of the Great Ape Caesar, a creature who somehow, under all the special effects, manages to convey immense subtleties of anger, impatience, disgust and, yes, even the melancholy that comes with leadership and power.
It's the last that ought to "move" you and more than a little, too. Caesar is played by Andy Serkis, an actor who is almost always buried in movies by CGI but who, in this breakthrough role in a hidden but distinguished career, somehow conveys actorly ability in motion capture underneath masterful CGI. If you never knew it before, you know it now that CGI acting in movies has become its own thing and when Hollywood is in its narcissistic "look at us" award season, they'd jolly well be advised to consider how to give it adequate attention.
What we're seeing in this large scale epic movie is the "POV" of the apes in their struggles with the semi-human and inhuman humans, for whom all the nobler human virtues have been swallowed by the machinelike responses of war.
The Colonel--Harrelson--truly believes "the only good ape is a dead ape" so he starves and abuses the large ape population in his prison camp. The Apes, under Caesar, refuse to slaughter captured humans unnecessarily, preferring to send them back home to The Colonel to report on huge Simian power.
Some of the apes talk like humans. Some talk in ape sign language which is translated for us in subtitles. The orangutan played by Karin Konoval is practically Caesar's soul of human charity and mercy, the one who carries the primal strain of virtue in earthly creatures.
Caesar, meanwhile, has, in frustration and rage begun to see the point of his predecessor Great Ape, Koba, that the only good human is a dead human.
The excitement and eventual power before it's over are exemplary and the morality is subtle--all of that in what is so easy to think of as cinematic silly season.
A word of caution though--leave the littlest ones home. Cruelty is plentiful and tough to be casual about.
"War For The Planet of the Apes"
Three and a half stars (out of four stars)
Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn and Judy Greer star in newest installment in the saga of apes and humans battling for control of earth. 140 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, adult themes and disturbing images.