With nationalist and nativist movements on the rise outside the theater, there's something both quaint and refreshing about another Planet of the Apes sequel. Alone among recent blockbusters, these films repeatedly ask us to root against the characters who look, act and talk like us.
And they succeed — though, granted, Andy Serkis' masterfully human performance as the chimpanzee patriarch Caesar has a lot to do with that. When used artfully, motion capture has reached a point where we no longer think about the technology we're seeing, just the character. And Caesar is a great one. Still chimp-like enough not to feel jarringly anthropomorphized, he's taken on Shakespearean and biblical dimensions over the course of the three modern Apes films.
In Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), the chimp received the gift (or curse?) of intelligence that transformed him into a liberator of his kind. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, he battled a dark doppelgänger who tried to turn that liberation into a bloodbath. Now, in War, he comes up against his worst human adversary: a nihilist soldier-turned-cult-leader called the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who's determined to rid the world of dangerously smart apes.
Directed and cowritten by Matt Reeves (Dawn), the film has an evocative look and mood that can't quite outweigh a sloppy, uneven story structure. In the first half, which plays like a Western-tinged road movie, Caesar and his closest lieutenants set out to find the soldiers responsible for an unprovoked attack on the ape colony. Their plan is to draw the enemy away from their kind's migration to safety. But that goal becomes irrelevant in the second half, as the film abruptly shifts gears and becomes a prison flick.
The same virus that made the apes smart has decimated humanity, and Reeves gives his California landscapes a dreamy, elegiac desolation. The apes' refuge in Muir Woods has a misty grandeur; an ambush behind a waterfall takes place in terrifying chiaroscuro. There's both beauty and aimlessness in the road-movie section, a sense of random discovery that recalls the weirder sci-fi films of the early 1970s. Along the way, Caesar's crew acquires a mute human child (Amiah Miller) and a comical chimp sidekick (Steve Zahn) who thinks his name is "Bad Ape" because he learned English by eavesdropping on the zookeepers.
If that sounds a bit unlikely, a revelation later in the film strains credulity even further. But plausibility has never been the strong suit of the Apes movies, past or present; they rig the science to explore the question of what would happen if Homo sapiens lost its position at the top of the food chain.
Here, what mainly happens is that Serkis acts circles around Harrelson, whose scenery-chewing Colonel feels like an extended, tired steal from Apocalypse Now. Between him and the Moses-like figure that Caesar has become, there's simply no contest.
The reboot series has traded the philosophizing of the early-'70s Apes films for striking visuals and action sequences, but it gets the same point across. The promised "war," it turns out, is primarily an interhuman conflict; with a few exceptions, these apes are better than we at grasping the principle of solidarity for survival. That was the final message of the movie that started it all in 1968, and it's nice to find its hoary Hollywood humanism — yes, that's the word — still alive in 2017. The implication is clear: If we can extend empathy to a bunch of simians, why not to one another?