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‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ Review: Simian Saga Sewn Up Satisfactorily

This climax to the trilogy of new ”Apes“ movies earns its quotations of John Ford and the Old Testament

The legendary pacifist slogan “War is not healthy for children and other living things” finds a whole new spin with “War for the Planet of the Apes,” in which the super-intelligent apes finally take up arms against a dwindling human population that refuses to let them live in peace.

There’s a lot that “War” has going for it, including some of the richest characterizations of all three “Apes” reboots, along with the next-level CG work of bringing an ape army to life with expressive, emotional faces. Like its two predecessors, it has its flaws — and each entry has had unique ones — but overall, this is a trilogy that will stand as an example of how to remake and reimagine familiar material in a way that respects the original while also enhancing it.

Following the death of human-hating ape Koba (a performance-captured Toby Kebbell) and skirmishes with what’s left of the U.S. Army, Caesar (Andy Serkis) hopes to lead his ape community to a new home where they can finally live in peace. But as the film opens, a squadron of soldiers is advancing upon the apes’ forest hideaway, leading to a violent clash. Caesar spares the lives of a handful of humans so they can tell their commanding office, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), to back off, but the Colonel instead mounts another attack, killing several apes in Caesar’s immediate family.

Obsessed with revenge, Caesar sends the other apes off to find their new homeland while he deals with the Colonel, but he is joined by several close confidants, including Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary) and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). Along the way, the group grows to include a young mute girl (Amiah Miller, “Lights Out”) and escaped zoo animal Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), who has been hiding out in an abandoned ski resort.

Caesar comes to learn that the Colonel has captured Caesar’s entire tribe, imprisoning them in a labor camp for diabolical purposes, leading to the inevitable titular conflict. The screenplay, from writer Mark Bomback and director Matt Reeves (both returning from “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”), makes it clear that Caesar’s lust for vengeance has blinded him from his duties as a leader, and that his failure to forgive has led to the coming bloodshed.

Unfortunately, Bomback and Reeves don’t trust their own writing — or they don’t trust the audience — and they give the Colonel a speech that explicitly explains all of this. It’s a rare misstep in an otherwise solid piece of storytelling. Whereas previous “Apes” movies made Caesar one of the only notable characters, aided greatly by Serkis’ brilliantly empathetic and expressive motion-capture work, here we get a more intricate ensemble of characters, with Maurice and Bad Ape in particular standing on their own. (It’s because these protagonists are so fully fleshed-out that the film earns its visual references to the westerns of John Ford and its thematic shout-outs to the Old Testament.)

Granted, the human characters are once again far less interesting, but making us relate so much to Caesar and his comrades is what helps to underscore the pacifist bent of the series. After all, if we’re rooting for one side, and we are the other side, shouldn’t we want both sides to avoid conflict altogether?

The action proceeds at a thrilling clip, aided immensely by the great Michael Giacchino score. The composer never settles into a groove, with instrumentations varying from simple percussion (the 20th Century Fox fanfare sounds like it was performed from the middle of a rain forest) to full orchestra, and with themes that never feel like mere repetitions of what has come before. It’s a stirring soundtrack that accentuates, but never overwhelms, what we’re seeing.

We take the effects work of the “Apes” films for granted because it’s both seamless and ambitious, but “War” takes mo-cap to new heights. Whether it’s an army of apes on horseback (or the climactic blow-out battle), or intimate moments between Maurice and the equally mute young girl, these three films make us believe what we’re seeing without ever thinking about the complicated technology or hours of detailed work required in the post-production process.

It’s not just the CG that’s visually impressive here; “War” boasts some extraordinary set pieces, from the ape cave hidden behind a waterfall to the frost-covered abandoned ski resort to the Colonel’s base of operations, complete with a set of complex underground tunnels. The analog artistry here offers as much detail and skill as the digital.

There’s that old saying that you don’t judge how a bear rides a bicycle because the achievement is that he does it at all. In the case of this trilogy, we don’t just believe that apes can walk and talk — they’re thinking and feeling and emoting. And Andy Serkis is giving a tour de force performance. (Or, in bears-on-bikes terms, a Tour de France one.)