“War for the Planet of the Apes” thrilling and soul­ful

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Michael O’Sul­li­van

The best thing about the re­booted “Planet of the Apes” film series has al­ways been the apes. Im­pres­sive on a tech­ni­cal level and a dra­matic one, these mo­tion-cap­ture crea­tures — rep­re­sent­ing in­tel­li­gent, even soul­ful chim­panzees, go­ril­las, orang­utans and bono­bos — out­shine their hu­man coun­ter­parts in terms of emo­tional con­nec­tion with the au­di­ence. They may not be peo­ple, but they are, in ev­ery sense of the word, fully rounded char­ac­ters.

The ti­tle of the new­est in­stall­ment in the durable fran­chise, “War for the Planet of the Apes,” is some­thing of a mis­nomer. Although set 15 years after the science ex­per­i­ment that first gave rise to smart, talk­ing apes — and at the height of hos­til­i­ties be­tween these in­tel­lec­tu­ally ad­vanced an­i­mals and the more brutish of the peo­ple who would sub­ju­gate them — “War” in­cludes fewer scenes of pitched bat­tle than mo­ments of quiet con­tem­pla­tion and con­ver­sa­tion. (Note: Not all of the apes ac­tu­ally speak here; many still com­mu­ni­cate us­ing grace­ful sign lan­guage. In a par­al­lel de­vel­op­ment, sev­eral hu­mans have come to lose the abil­ity to talk – the re­sult of a virus known as the Simian Flu.)

All this is ex­plained, for new­com­ers to the saga, in a

short pre­am­ble to the ac­tion of the new film, which be­gins with the apes en­sconced in their for­ti­fied en­camp­ment in the deep woods of north­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Although the apes just want to be left alone, and there is a con­tin­gent of hu­mans who are in­clined to leave them in peace, there is an in­cur­sion by rene­gade hu­man com­man­dos — led by a blood­thirsty of­fi­cer known only as the Colonel (Woody Har­rel­son) — that kills some of the fam­ily mem­bers of the apes’ brood­ingly charis­matic leader Cae­sar, a chim­panzee played by the great Andy Serkis, whose ex­pres­sive, gut­tural vo­cal per­for­mance and mime­like phys­i­cal­ity an­chors the film.

This, of course, trig­gers a vendetta be­tween Cae­sar and the Colonel, whose troops sub­se­quently round up and im­prison many of the apes, for slave la­bor, just as they are mov­ing camp to avoid fur­ther at­tacks. Among those cap­tured: Cae­sar and his only sur­viv­ing son, the in­fant Cor­nelius (Devyn Dal­ton).

With Cae­sar out of the ac­tion, though not out of com­mis­sion — de­spite be­ing tied, seething, to a wooden struc­ture that lends him the sil­hou­ette of a cru­ci­fied, simian Je­sus — the story shifts to the small band of apes still at large, plus a cou­ple of new­com­ers. This group in­cludes, in ad­di­tion the won­der­fully wise elder Mau­rice the orangutan (Karin Kono­val, a vet­eran of the pre­vi­ous two films), a mute lit­tle hu­man girl who has been or­phaned (Amiah Miller) and a talk­a­tive yet wryly dole­ful zoo-es­capee chimp who in­tro­duces him­self only as Bad Ape. In this last role, Steve Zahn de­liv­ers a mem­o­rable turn, tran­scend­ing a part that might oth­er­wise have been used for lit­tle more than comic re­lief, and leav­ing view­ers with a sense of gen­uine com­pas­sion.

Though much of this con­nec­tion can be at­trib­uted to the ac­tors — and CGI wizards — who give life to these non­hu­man char­ac­ters, ku­dos is also due to the sto­ry­telling skills of di­rec­tor and co-writer Matt Reeves (“Let Me In”), who did such a fine job with the pre­vi­ous “Apes” film. Along with re­turn­ing writer Mark Bom­back, Reeves spins a grip­ping, vis­ually stun­ning and emo­tion­ally com­plex tale of oth­er­ness — one that ex­am­ines, against its us-ver­sus-them sub­text, not just what it means to be hu­man, but also hu­mane.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” may have the body of an ac­tion film, but it has the soul of an art-house drama and the brains of a po­lit­i­cal thriller.

Pro­vided by Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury Fox

Karin Kono­val, left, the won­der­fully wise elder Mau­rice the orangutan looks after Amiah Miller, a mute lit­tle hu­man girl who has been or­phaned in "War for the Planet of the Apes."

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