War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

140 min. Director: Matt Reeves. Cast: Andy Serkis, Steve Zahn, Woody Harrelson.

At one point in War for the Planet of the Apes—the third film in Fox’s rebooted Apes franchise—the human antagonist stares down ape antihero Caesar and wonders at him. “My God, look at your eyes. Almost human.” He’s saying what we’re all thinking. The advanced state of visual effects here, a combination of motion-capture and CGI, dazzles, and winningly in service of a serious-minded allegory.

Once again, Caesar marks a collaboration between visual effects artists and actor Andy Serkis as they breathe life into the super-intelligent ape general. When Caesar and his tribe of apes get violently rousted from a deep-woods hideout, the conflict between apes and humans heats up again. Caesar finds himself locked in “this time, it’s personal” combat with an off-the-reservation human “Colonel” (expertly conjured by Woody Harrelson). As always, the franchise maps the imaginary boundary between man and animal. The apes act more human than ever and the humans more monstrously in “man’s inhumanity to man” fashion (prisoner-of-war brutality, killing that approaches genocide). In the battle zones, graffiti comments as portentously as a Greek chorus: “ENDANGERED SPECIES,” “HISTORY HISTORY HISTORY,” “KEEP FEAR TO YOURSELF. SHARE COURAGE WITH OTHERS,” “THE BEGINNING AND THE END AΩ.”

In the hands of co-writer/director Matt Reeves, who also helmed the trilogy’s previous installment, War for the Planet of the Apes makes for smart entertainment credible both as a summer blockbuster and an artful piece of cinema. Melancholy and measured, this Apes proves more interested in mood than spectacle, while providing both. In a very modern move, Reeves consciously evokes forebears, not only the original Apes films but war pictures like Apocalypse Now. In fact, Reeves’ film evokes the sort of tough-minded historical war drama John Milius used to write, with an eye on what war can do to the individual. The characteristically compassionate Caesar finds himself on the brink, motivated by revenge, while the emotionally scarred Colonel rants about his “holy war” against the apes’ “unholy kingdom.” The war has also turned human against human, and the humans manage, in some circumstances, to turn ape against ape.

Well-drawn supporting characters, including a significant orphan girl (Amiah Miller) and a tragicomic “fool” called “Bad Ape” (the great Steve Zahn), add value. With its magical use of CGI and the reorientation of the audience to root for the end of humanity, War for the Planet of the Apes could be accused of offering more parlor tricks than profundity. But if this sequel isn’t quite as deep as it may seem, it does add an earnestly satisfying (final?) chapter to a fine franchise.