Much like the grim-n-gritty “Logan,” “War for the Planet of the Apes” makes more visual and emotional sense as a recombinant Western movie than a sci-fi flick.
While “Logan” blended “Shane” with samurai movies and put the whole thing in nominal X-Men drag, “War” draws on everything from “Apocalypse Now” to “The Great Escape” and the story of Moses, with plenty of horses trudging through winter snow and mountain forts about to be sacked by an enemy horde.
We pick up with the franchise two years after “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” after Caesar (a terrific Andy Serkis) defeated the treacherous ape Koba to assume leadership of the apes.
A state of war exists between the intellectually elevated apes and the remaining humans. The apes are making preparations to leave Muir Woods, where they have been living for years, and toying with the idea of a new home with copious food and water and no pesky humans.
Humans, on the other hand, have a non-ape problem. The virus that killed off most of them has mutated and is now spreading through the remaining population, removing the power of speech from victims. (See, the apes are now more human-like and the humans are now more ape … OK, yeah, you’re with me.)
Caesar wants a deal with the humans — leave us alone in the woods and we will leave you alone. The humans, led by a fanatical Colonel (Woody Harrelson going full-on Brando in “Apocalypse Now”), aren’t having it and launch a brutal attack on the apes. The slave apes are painted with the word “DONKEY” — the degradation of which is far more upsetting than any of the violence.
Lives are lost, prisoners are taken and Caesar must decide what course of action to take: Liberate his people or finish off the humans perhaps for all.
The Colonel makes the captured apes slaves at his fort — much of the film is more “Internment Camp on the Planet of the Apes” than “War for” anything.
These set pieces are frustrating for two reasons. There isn’t actually as much open combat as the title would imply (nothing here is as riveting as the sight of an ape taking down a helicopter in “Rise” or as arresting as Koba playing the fool then machine-gunning two humans in “Dawn”).
And with the Colonel, there was an opportunity to make him a genuinely complex character; instead of scene of a man struggling with the possibility that humanity might be drawing to a close, we see a cartoonish lunatic.
Elswhere, while the remaining apes head for the promised land, Caesar and a few trusted allies — the kindly orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and his close ally Rocket (Terry Notary) — head off into the Sierra Nevadas to rescue the captured apes.
This is where the “War” looks truly gorgeous (it was shot in glorious 65 mm), full of long shots of apes on horseback across the snow and close-ups of Caesar looking grim. The crew encounters a small girl (Amiah Miller) who may or may not be able to speak and the sweet and damaged Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), whose name comes from what his handlers said as he beat him.
The key to all of this is Serkis’ performance as Caesar. Serkis is the premier motion-capture actor of his age (which is to say, of all time to this point, I suppose) and his Caesar is a fantastic creation — part general, part president, part messiah, a creature of charisma and guts who has seen far, far too much. His expressions are dark and complex, his voice is gruff and canny.
And one has to admire the motion capture effects with the location shooting. Some of this is green-screen but a whole lot of it is not, and the blend of Alberta and British Columbia (which play the California mountains) makes for a thrilling landscape.
For those seeking relentless ape-vs-human combat, the resolution is frustratingly anti-climatic, the coda intriguingly ambiguous. Simultaneously, one wishes for just a little more depth from this entry (the Colonel really is a missed opportunity) but on the whole, “War” is both a reasonable possible conclusion to the ape’s arc and a solid preparation for whatever comes next. After all, in most end times scenarios one roots for the continued existence of humanity.
Here? Eh, not so much.
‘WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES’
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn
Rating: PG-13 for for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements and gorilla warfare (oof)
Running time: 2 hours, 22 minutes.
Theaters: Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Mueller, Alamo Slaughter, Alamo South, Barton Creek, Cedar Park, City Lights, Evo, Flix, Galaxy, Gateway, Hill Country, Metropolitan, Moviehouse, Round Rock, Southpark, Stone Hill, Tinseltown, Westgate. 3D: Barton Creek, Cedar Park, City Lights, Evo, Flix, Galaxy, Gateway, Hilll Country, Metropolitan, Round Rock, Southpark, Tinseltown