War For The Planet Of The Apes is a triumph

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (Matt Reeves). 140 min. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (July 14). See listing. Rating: NNNN

I see a lot of giant effects pictures – it’s an occupational hazard – and I’d love to see more of them adopt the approach used in War For The Planet Of The Apes: make the effects invisible, and just tell a good story.

The picture brings the 21st-century reimagining of 20th Century Fox’s cheesy-but-beloved sci-fi saga to its conclusion, staging a final confrontation between the super-intelligent apes and the remnants of humanity with all the epic sweep and emotional weight it can muster. Turns out that’s quite a lot.

Directed by Matt Reeves and written by Reeves and Mark Bomback, the film picks up two or three years after Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes’ uneasy truce between apes and humans was shattered by bad faith on both sides.

Alpha chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his clan have been hiding out in the forests of northern California while the human forces press inward.

Now, Caesar and his lieutenants plan to head south and find refuge in the deserts – but Man, in the form of Woody Harrelson’s murderous Colonel McCullough, won’t let him, dealing a crippling blow to Caesar’s people and provoking a final, brutal showdown.

It all sounds pretty heavy, and it is. Reeves, who rescued the property from silliness with 2014’s ambitious, emotionally complex Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, styles this chapter as a Biblical epic, with Caesar struggling with the mantle of Ape Moses as well as with his own thirst for vengeance against the humans who’ve persecuted him for most of his life. 

But there’s a twist: Caesar and his comrades now find themselves caring for a human girl (Amiah Miller) who’s become speechless and “primitive” from a new mutation of the virus that wiped out most of her species – a mutation that makes the remaining humans even more desperate to save themselves.

The story’s ambition is grounded in clear, potent emotional conflicts that come through powerfully in the non-verbal performances of most of the ape protagonists. The refinements of motion capture technology make Serkis’s Caesar an even more perfect synthesis of flesh-and-blood performer and digital character than he was in previous iterations even in a large format presentation, there’s no hint of artifice or pixelation. It’s as if Caesar was just there, living and breathing right in front of the camera.

Reeves and Bomback also introduce a new mo-cap character in Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape, a chimp who delivers comic relief and genuine pathos – and speaks English about as well as Caesar does. Most of the apes still communicate through subtitled sign language, but Zahn’s distinctive voice, softer and higher than Serkis’s terse growl, offers a different perspective on the non-human characters. It’s a thoughtful choice, and a welcome one.

Like Dawn Of before it, War For The Planet Of The Apes carries itself with unusual grace and gravity, with stretches of silence and contemplation that make its action beats seem more explosive. Reeves knows the value of letting a story breathe.

This one’s also beautiful to behold. Michael Seresin’s cinematography has a subtle 70s Panavision look that’s just gorgeous, and Michael Giacchino’s score is smart and sorrowful, illustrating the action rather than telling us how to feel. If this really is the end of the new Planet Of The Apes cycle, they’re going out on a high.

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