Who would have thought that a bunch of chattering apes would have so much to say?
But “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the finale in the “Planet of the Apes” reboot trilogy that began with the surprisingly satisfying “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” in 2011 and continued with the darkly impressive “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” in 2014, is smart, funny and moving.
With its allusions to Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad, the Bible, American slavery and the civil-rights movement, “War” — the best of the three — may not be subtle but it’s ultimate proof that summer sequels and blockbusters don’t have to be brain-dead bottom-feeders either. (We’re looking at you “Transformers: The Last Knight.”).
Of course, the social allegories were baked into the source materials, Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel “Planet of the Apes” and the subsequent 1968 film starring Charlton Heston as a talking human trapped in a strange society where people are mute savages ruled over by cruel apes. That was followed by four more films in the ’70s.
Now, director/co-writer Matt Reeves (who helmed the two previous “Apes” movies as well as the lauded vampire flick “Let Me In”) fleshes out those historical parallels with well-wrought characters who bring the franchise full circle leading to that fateful day when George Taylor (the astronaut played by Heston) splashes down in this upside-down world. Ultimately, it matters little that Reeves has done much of this through the technological smoke-and-mirrors of CGI.
Andy Serkis returns as Caesar, the “patient zero” from “Rise” and “Dawn,” the first ape to speak and raise ape consciousness as a result of a botched scientific experiment to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease in humans.
Caesar, who led a breakout from his facility, and his fellow animals who followed him have set up a kingdom of sorts in the forest. What’s left of humanity — much of which has been wiped out by a virus unleashed by the drug that made apes smarter — wants to rid the world of these animals.
Caesar, who believes apes can share an uneasy coexistence with humans, is a wise leader who doesn’t want war.
In fact, that belief was the source of his conflict with bonobo Koba (Toby Kebbell), a fellow “revolutionary” who wanted revenge against humans for cruelties inflicted in the lab. In “Dawn,” Caesar was responsible for his death, an act that haunts him throughout “War.”
In one sense, Koba was right. Humans won’t leave apes alone. This time, an obsessed rogue colonel (a bald Woody Harrelson, doing his best Walter E. Kurtz) and his cultlike army of devoted soldiers have decided to wipe out Caesar and his crew once and for all.
The Colonel even has the help of traitorous, sellout simians he derisively calls “donkeys.” They were Koba followers who hate Caesar so intensely that they became lackeys for the humans just to get revenge.
When the Colonel kills Caesar’s wife and one of his children, Caesar switches into full-on Koba mode. But, as the old saying goes, uneasy is the head that wears the crown, as Caesar remains torn. He must not only wage war but figure out how to get his extended family of apes — including his remaining son, Cornelius — to a desert promised land far from human interference.
In fact, his distrust of humans doesn’t extend to the mute orphan, Nova (Amiah Miller), who is welcomed into ape society.
Yet “War” doesn’t take itself so seriously that it forgets to be a straight-up action film and Reeves never lets the pace lag. “War” doesn’t feel like it’s well over two hours long.
He’s helped by technological advances that allow actors like the wonderful Serkis, Kebbell, Steve Zahn as the welcome comic-relief Bad Ape and Karin Konoval as nurturing Maurice to disappear into their simian skins without losing their humanity or ability to convey emotion.
Things sure have come a long way the cool-for-the-era but now thrift-store-worthy masks from the original “Planet of the Apes.”
While this is the last of this particular trilogy, there’s no guarantee there won’t be more cinematic takes on this ape-centric world, especially if “War” does well at the box office. But if this is the end, it’s a fine way to say farewell to this monkeying around with a franchise.
War for the Planet of the Apes
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Matt Reeves
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Andy Serkis, Steve Zahn
Rated: PG-13 (sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images)
Running time: 140 min.