‘Apes’ franchise evolves into a thrilling blockbuster

July 14, 2017 GMT

The best summer movie of the 2017 blockbuster season, the “three-quel” “War for the Planet of the Apes” pits Caesar (Andy Serkis), the Spartacus of apes, against a character called the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a barbaric human warlord and leader of an army of heavily armed and combat-trained soldiers aided by traitor apes, who fought alongside Caesar’s former rival Koba (Toby Kebbell).

The story is set two years after the events of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014). Humans have been decimated by ape-enhancing Simian Flu, and while their numbers are drastically reduced, the Colonel leads a — dare I say it? — guerrilla attack against Caesar in a dense California forest, killing members of Caesar’s family.

Caesar vows revenge and on horseback stalks the Colonel’s marching army along with a few of his closest allies, including orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Caesar’s second in command, Rocket (Terry Notary). On the journey to find the Colonel’s home base, Caesar and Maurice find a sick human child they place under their protection and dub Nova (Amiah Miller).

They also come across a comical ape (Steve Zahn), who was raised in a zoo, thinks his name is “Bad Ape” because that’s what humans called him and likes to wear sporty hats and vests. Bad Ape, too, joins Caesar’s ragtag band.

In subsequent developments, we encounter a slave ape prison camp and a wall the rogue Colonel is building to hold back a pending attack by fellow humans.

In public statements, director/co-writer Matt Reeves (“Let the Right One In,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”), who, along with childhood friend J.J. Abrams, is more a re-creator than a creator, has cited such influences as “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” Any resemblance between Harrelson’s dome-pated, lunatic Colonel and Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz of “Apocalypse Now” is made even clearer when we hear a 1960s Hendrix classic and see some graffiti on a wall.

The Colonel’s men have painted such slogans as “Bedtime for Bonzo” on their helmets, evoking Ronald Reagan and the Vietnam War. This is “Apocalypse Ape,” and it’s smart to “ape” such classics as “Apocalypse Now” and “The Great Escape” rather than the original “Planet of the Apes” sequels.

The moral of beast fables such as this film, “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Island of Dr. Moreau” and Robert Bresson’s “Au hasard Balthazar” is that man is the beastliest being. In “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the apes are the good guys of the post-apocalyptic future, while the humans have thoroughly messed everything up and gone over to the dark side. It’s quite a message for our times.

Are you ready for Caesar to evolve from ape Spartacus to ape Moses? In addition to award- worthy motion capture performances, “War” benefits hugely from the dazzling lighting of veteran cinematographer Michael Seresin and an unusually intelligent score by the usually bombastic Michael Giacchino. How good is “War for the Planet of the Apes?” Good enough for Oscars.

(“War for the Planet of the Apes” contains war and gun violence, suffering and anguish.)