“War for the Planet of the Apes” plays like a mash-up of about five different movies, but at least one of them feels like a masterpiece. The film is the latest sequel in the rebooted series based on the original 1968 “Planet of the Apes”; the three new films are by far the most intelligent, modestly scaled, and meticulously crafted of our current blockbuster franchise “properties.”
This is all the more ironic when you consider that the hero of the resurgent “Apes” movies is a sentient chimpanzee named Caesar and that he’s played by Andy Serkis behind a digital mask that transmits and subtly amplifies every emotional pixel of a strikingly nuanced performance. Taken together, the three films (a fourth is reportedly in the pipeline) follow Caesar’s rise from lab experiment to rebel general to the Moses of his people. When the conceit works, which is more often than you’d think, the films can be exhilarating.
“War” may be the most ambitious of the lot in its dramatic scope and borrowings from classic Hollywood. Directed (as was the last installment) by Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”), it’s set in the near-ish future, after a virus has wiped out much of humanity while leaving the various ape species untouched. The movie envisions a last-stand assault by humans, led by a delusional Colonel (Woody Harrelson), on a simian population that just wants to get to the prairies where they can roam free.
Despite Harrelson’s customary gonzo brio, his scenes are the weakest in the film, an obvious and surprisingly uninspired riff on Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” The new “Planet of the Apes” movies have always been more sympathetic to the apes than to us, and the downside has been human characters who are increasingly two-dimensional stick figures.
So it is here, especially since the virus that has decimated the population is now robbing human characters of the power of speech. During their travels, the group led by Caesar picks up a mute little girl (Amiah Miller), but she adds little to the movie beside serving as a signpost to future sequels.
By contrast, Serkis’s Caesar is a robust, conflicted, full-bodied creation, a reluctant leader who finds himself fighting his inner beast as the movie progresses. Early on, the Colonel’s men commit certain depredations against the apes, at which point Caesar heads out on a mission in which he’s joined by those non-speaking apes closest to him: the wise orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), the loyal chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary), and a doughty lowland gorilla named Luca (Michael Adamthwaite).
They’re joined by another renegade lab chimp with the power of speech, a worrywart named Bad Ape who talks in the laconic cadences of Steve Zahn and who serves as the movie’s welcome comic relief. The sequences in which this group ascends into the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, hoping to cross to the Colonel’s base, are brilliantly filmed and dramatically charged, consciously calling on classic westerns like the James Stewart/Anthony Mann cycle of the early 1950s.
In fact, a strain of deep moviemaking classicism runs throughout this movie, mostly for the good. “War for the Planet of the Apes” is by turns a revenge western, a battle film, a prison film, a “great escape” suspense thriller, and a simian “Ten Commandments.” The stitches often show, and there are talky, unconvincing patches, but just as often you feel the thrill of fresh visual and narrative energy yoked to sturdy cinematic bones. (Not for nothing does “War” end with a shot of survivors on a hillside that seems to literally ape the finale of 1936’s “San Francisco.”)
Holding it all together is Serkis’s glowering, agonized hero, each facial nubble and strand of hair exquisitely rendered yet secondary to the presence of the performance. The photorealism of the CGI is the work of gifted technician-artists, but the power of the film — the weight of destiny you feel pressing down on Caesar at every moment — is the result of acting, and mighty fine acting at that. “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a work made of anthropomorphized animals and computerized smoke and mirrors, but at its core is an urgency that we like to associate with being human. The movie makes you wonder if it’s time to rethink that.
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
Directed by Matt Reeves. Written by Mark Bomback and Reeves. Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 140 minutes. PG-13 (sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.