'War for the Planet of the Apes' brings emotional weight to franchise

Hail Caesar: Andy Serkis' performance adds tragic element to apocalyptic adventure

In War for the Planet of the Apes, Andy Serkis stars for the third time as Caesar, an intelligent chimpanzee who leads a colony of apes in post-apocalyptic California. Serkis' name has become practically synonymous with giving motion-capture performances for computer-generated characters since he first played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings 15 years ago.

War adds some tragic shading to Caesar, already a character with a complex inner life, despite his existence as intangible pixels. It's hard to know how to credit the creativity in Serkis' performances, since we never see the actor in the flesh, but I like to compare him to a conductor, setting the pace and emotional tones for the symphony of CGI artists.

Director Matt Reeves, who also helmed the previous installment, gives franchise filmmaking a good name by sticking to the fundamentals of rich characterization and epic storytelling.

The early titles neatly sum up the previous films: how 15 years earlier, the "simian flu" nearly wiped out humanity while also raising primate intelligence. After five years of truce, Caesar has been peacefully raising children and ruling the ape colony in Muir Woods. Caesar remains one of the only apes who can speak, so they communicate in (subtitled) sign language that makes them remarkably relatable.

The apes face a surprise escalation of attacks from human soldiers, whose modern weaponry provides an advantage over the apes' spears and arrows, with sorrowful results for Caesar. Their old home no longer secure, the colony makes an exodus to a potential refuge far away, but Caesar, bent on vengeance, sets off after the soldiers. He'd rather go it alone but he's joined by his most loyal lieutenants, including wise orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval).

War crafts sweeping shots of apes riding horseback along lakes and through snowy mountainsides. They gradually discover that the humans are led by a rogue colonel (Woody Harrelson) with a sinister agenda and no willingness to compromise. Harrelson captures the ruler's ruthless fanaticism while conveying more complex motivations for defending the human race.

The best of the nearly 50-year-old Planet of the Apes series always matched cutting-edge visual effects to sociopolitical relevance. Key sequences can thematically resonate with slavery, racial collaboration, the Vietnam War and the modern political landscape part of the Colonel's plan involves building a wall. That some intelligent gorillas collaborate with the ape-hunting humans evokes the idea of tribal disloyalty.

But War's power comes less from tidy metaphors than from its narrative sweep, which evokes widescreen Westerns while subverting the usual tensions between settlers and Native Americans. Despite the title, it's less of a war movie than you might expect Dawn of the Planet of the Apes arguably had more "war" sequences and persistently questions the notion of violence as a solution.

The ninth film in the overall Apes series, War goes easy on references to the original film, although Maurice adopts a mute human orphan (Amiah Miller) whose nickname "Nova" nods to Charlton Heston's original love interest.

At one point Harrelson warns another human character "If we lose, it will be a planet of apes!" Following the summer movies' pirates, transformers and minions, that doesn't seem so bad.

War for the Planet of the Apes. 4 stars. Directed by Matt Reeves. Stars Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson. Rated PG-13. Opens July 14. At area theaters.


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