For a re­view of “War for the Planet of the Apes,”

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The re­cent pre­quels to the “Planet of the Apes” films are prime ex­am­ples of re­vi­tal­iz­ing, hon­or­ing and tran­scend­ing fa­mil­iar source ma­te­rial. They have cre­ated their iconic simian char­ac­ters through photo- re­al­is­tic per­for­mance cap­ture rather than ac­tors in mon­key suits, deep­ened the story from campy ac­tion ad­ven­ture to mov­ing drama, and al­luded to con­tem­po­rary is­sues of big­otry, xeno­pho­bia and per­pet­ual war. The new films have cre­ated a core of solidly grounded re­al­ism in a spec­tac­u­lar fan­tasy world.

It all reaches a breath­tak­ing cli­max in “War for the Planet of the Apes.” Vis­ually, the film is gor­geous, with com­plex but clearly pre­sented bat­tles and ut­terly life­like com­puter- gen­er­ated an­thro­poids per­fectly meshed with on- cam­era per­form­ers. Cre­atively, it’s blessed with Andy Serkis as the lead ac­tor, play­ing the ape leader Cae­sar for the third time. His work, flaw­lessly voiced and acted through mo­tion cap­ture, is stun­ning start to stop, though he never ap­pears di­rectly on­screen.

The plot re­turns us to a realm fa­mil­iar from pre­vi­ous films. A “simian flu” pan­demic has dec­i­mated the hu­man pop­u­la­tion while boost­ing the in­tel­li­gence of apes. Mankind’s re­main­ing sur­vivors and their likely suc­ces­sor species live far apart, apes in forested en­camp­ments and hu­mans in com­pounds sal­vaged from scraps of their old civ­i­liza­tion’s in­fra­struc­ture. Stay­ing dis­tant, each side has avoided skir­mishes for ter­ri­tory and con­trol.

By the time we re- en­ter the story, the apes have evolved over about 15 years, now com­mu­ni­cat­ing com­plex ideas through speech or Amer­i­can Sign Lan­guage. Hu­mans have been changed by the plague, as well, many mov­ing closer to vi­o­lent pri­mal urges. That we meet them at the be­gin­ning in mil­i­tary camo, crawl­ing in to am­bush a peace­ful ape clan, isn’t much of a spoiler given the film’s ti­tle.

The fran­tic back- and- forth com­bat be­tween well weaponized hu­mans and stronger, faster apes is the kind of alarm­ing, ag­o­niz­ing- yet- ex­cit­ing fire­fight that has been di­rec­tor Matt Reeves’ sig­na­ture since 2008’ s “Clover­field.” Just as that gi­ant mon­ster epic pow­er­fully touched on post- 9/ 11 anx­i­eties, his se­cond “Apes” film ex­plores so­cially charged themes fit­ting a dark time. Shortly af­ter a post- com­bat cease- fire is bro­kered be­tween the species, a dev­as­tat­ing new at­tack is launched by the mer­ci­less, un­named Colonel ( skin- headed Woody Har­rel­son chan­nel­ing Col. Kurtz from “Apoca­lypse Now”). Smol­der­ing with fury, Cae­sar pur­sues an Old Tes­ta­ment re­tal­i­a­tion, track­ing the Colonel to his head­quar­ters in the snow bound north to claim eye- for- an- eye vengeance.

Reeves gives the film the grav­ity of a his­tor­i­cal war epic. In a vast mil­i­tary fortress, the Colonel looks down upon the world froma bal­cony sup­port­ing a huge Amer­i­can flag. With ram­rod author­ity, he com­mands a le­gion of armed, de­vout fol­low­ers to­ward a fi­nal so­lu­tion to end the rise of the apes. His tow­er­ing fortress wall is be­ing built by starv­ing ape cap­tives bru­tally whipped to keep them in line. The Colonel grad­u­ally re­veals his mes­sianic re­li­gious mo­ti­va­tions for the com­ing geno­cide, and also for one of the film’s queasi­est and most hor­ri­ble im­ages, the nu­mer­ous apes lit­er­ally cru­ci­fied at his out­post.

Bring­ing Cae­sar to such a hell on Earth is the fi­nal stage of a fas­ci­nat­ing hero’s jour­ney. Cae­sar de­buted in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” as a bright young chim­panzee, lov­ing hu­mans be­cause his hu­man “fa­ther” ( James Franco) truly loved him. Later, scarred by abu­sive hu­man op­pres­sors, Cae­sar be­came a Spar­ta­cus- like rebel chief fo­cused on pre­serv­ing his en­dan­gered clan.

In this third act he emerges as a scarred, bit­ter sur­vivor who finds that re­venge, while achiev­able, comes at a steep price — per­haps the cost of his soul as he bat­tles his own in­ner demons. The in­tel­li­gent script, coau­thored by Reeves, op­er­ates in a moral gray area where evil acts are com­mit­ted for un­der­stand­able rea­sons and char­ac­ters we sym­pa­thize with have se­ri­ous flaws.

While there is a po­tent at­mos­phere of doom and gloom in much of the film, it’s not en­tirely bleak. A taga­long new char­ac­ter, Bad Ape ( played with quirky flair by Steve Zahn), ar­rives just in time to give drained au­di­ences a few breaks. He is a hoot. A ru­n­away zoo chimp who be­came smarter as hu­mans grew sicker, he is a neu­rotic, gonzo recluse hid­ing in a de­serted moun­tain ski lodge. When he tells Cae­sar the Colonel’s where­abouts and is drafted to help, his anx­i­ety is sen­si­ble, re­lat­able and quite funny. Never have I heard a meek, ten­ta­tive “OK” so laugh­able.

An­other ray of sun amid the dark­ness is Nova ( Amiah Miller), a mute girl who may play a sig­nif­i­cant role in up­com­ing Apes ad­ven­tures. The se­ries usu­ally makes us root for apes over homo sapi­ens. Her touch­ing pres­ence of­fers us a chance to re­assess our hu­man­ity more op­ti­misti­cally.

If re­viv­ing pop- cul­ture oldies has be­come Hol­ly­wood’s prime di­rec­tive, this tril­ogy’s con­fi­dent work, like Christo­pher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trip­tych, is the way to do it. I rec­om­mend it with­out reser­va­tion.

“War For The Planet Of The Apes,” a Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury Fox re­lease, is rated PG- 13 for se­quences of sci- fi vi­o­lence and ac­tion, the­matic el­e­ments, and some dis­turb­ing im­ages. Run­ning time: 140 min­utes. ★★★★

“The Big Sick”

Very few names or de­tails have been changed to pro­tect any­body in “The Big Sick,” an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal com­edy writ­ten by and star­ring Ku­mail Nan­jiani. The story of a Pak­istani- Amer­i­can co­me­dian who bucks tra­di­tion by fall­ing for a white woman, “The Big Sick” is one of those per­sonal lit­tle movies that seems des­tined to be­come a crowd- pleas­ing hit. A rom- com with a cross­cul­tural twist, it’s this year’s “My Big Fat Greek Wed­ding,” with the added ben­e­fit — or bur­den — of hit­ting the­aters dur­ing one of the most ran­corous and racially charged mo­ments in mod­ern Amer­i­can his­tory.

Nan­jiani, best known as the prickly tech guy Di­nesh on HBO’s “Sil­i­con Val­ley,” plays Ku­mail, a barely dis­guised ver­sion of him­self. At a Chicago com­edy club one night, Ku­mail man­ages to turn a cheeky heck­ler, Emily ( a charm­ing Zoe Kazan), into a ca­sual fling. Things get pro­gres­sively more se­ri­ous un­til Emily learns that Ku­mail lacks the courage to avoid his fate: an ar­ranged mar­riage. Sud­denly, in a plot twist that seems like a con­trivance — though it’s true — Emily be­comes so ill that she ends up in a coma. While keep­ing watch at the hos­pi­tal with Emily’s par­ents ( Ray Ro­mano and Holly Hunter, both won­der­ful), Ku­mail re­al­izes he might well lose the love of his life.

Like Aziz Ansari’s Net­flix se­ries, “Mas­ter of None” — an­other au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal story about a South Asian co­me­dian nav­i­gat­ing Amer­i­can cul­ture—“The Big Sick” some­times sounds like standup ma­te­rial tran­scribed into screen­play for­mat. Nev­er­the­less, “The Big Sick” feels like its own cre­ation, per­haps be­cause Nan­jiani, who is mar­ried and about five years older than the still- sin­gle Ansari, brings a dol­lop of wis­dom and writerly hind­sight to his own tale. ( Nan­jiani’s wife, Emily V. Gor­don, co- wrote the script.)

In in­ter­views, Nan­jiani has fielded ques­tions about his movie’s mes­sage dur­ing a time of wide­spread an­tiMus­lim and anti- im­mi­grant sen­ti­ment, but “The Big Sick” is first and fore­most a love story. By avoid­ing any pointed rhetoric or up-to- the-minute ref­er­ences, “The Big Sick” stays sweet and pure, no more overtly po­lit­i­cal than “Com­ing to Amer­ica,” “Moscow on the Hud­son” or any other im­mi­grant ro­mance. Sweet, funny and warm­hearted, “The Big Sick” tells a quint-es­sen­tially Amer­i­can story, which is re­ally the only state­ment it needs tomake.

“The Big Sick,” a Lion­s­gate re­lease, is rated R for lan­guage, sex­ual sit­u­a­tions. Run­ning time: 120 min­utes. ★★★ ½

TRI­BUNE NEWS SER­VICE

Ray Ro­mano, left, and Zoe Kazan star in “The Big Sick.”

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