About a century before homo sapiens ceased to be Earth's dominant species, the primatologist F. Scott Fitzgerald observed that the "test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." So discerning cinephiles can — nay, should — marvel at the meticulous artistry governing War for the Planet of the Apes — the third chapter in Fox's shockingly good series of prequels to the Nixon-era Apes cycle — while still acknowledging that the sight of a scowling, shotgun-wielding monkey* is empirically funny.
But it's not like that ape doesn't have a legitimate beef. Caesar, once again played by the brilliant Andy Serkis beneath a digital paint job so lifelike that you forget you're looking at a visual-effects triumph, only wants to live in peace. But those damn dirty humans just won't let him be! Caesar is the lead protagonist of the trilogy, though most of his apey entourage — for you fans of collective nouns, his shrewdness — from 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes return. There's Karin Konoval as Maurice, his Jiminy Cricket; Judy Greer as Cornelia, his mate; Terry Notary — also the cast's movement coach — as Rocket, Caesar's consigliere. These actors will never get the credit they're due for their deeply nuanced, attentive — but mostly silent — work.
In War, about 15 years have passed since Caesar became the first of his species to develop human-level intelligence even as the "Simian Flu" began thinning our bloated herd. Now suffering from PTSD (yep) over having been forced to kill the violent separatist ape (uh-huh) Koba in the prior movie, Caesar dreams of leading his shrewdness to the promised land, which in the film's none-too-subtle allegorical schema appears to be...Vancouver. He's Moses, at least until he's transformed into MacDuff.
Hunting Caesar is one of the last surviving remnants of the U.S. Army, which has established a base in the Pacific Northwest. These warriors display a devotion to Woody Harrelson's otherwise nameless Colonel that's more cult-like than motivated by respect for the chain of command. Harrelson's character is a spin on Marlon Brando's loony Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, down to the knife-shaved head and the fact that soldiers who wear the same uniform he does have been dispatched to kill him. Another rich new wrinkle in this chapter is the presence of "donkeys" — turncoat apes who side with the humans against their own on the promise they'll be spared. The epidemic that has decimated humanity continues to mutate in terrifying ways, and The Colonel is holding hundreds of apes in bondage, using them as slave labor to build a fortification against an expected assault: a massive border wall.
Admittedly, this all sounds laughably pretentious and/or dismal. How can I persuade you it's wholly the opposite? Suspenseful, mournful, grand, sensitively performed by the ape-actors, and told with such visual authority that whenever the humans start flapping their fancy gums you sort of resent it. (Caesar and Co. communicate primarily in sign language, though a few of the brightest have progressed to speech.) Returning director Matt Reeves, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Bomback, inherited this franchise from Rise helmer Rupert Wyatt; before that, Reeves did the English-language vampire remake Let Me In. He's become a specialist in taking what sound like market-driven ideas for lousy movies and spinning them into something smart and distinct. He's been tapped to make the next Batman picture previously assigned to star Ben Affleck; Bat-fingers crossed.
War for the Planet of the Apes is, strangely, the second great-ape flick of 2017 to exhibit an Apocalypse Now fetish. It's much better than the other one, Kong: Skull Island, even though the latter featured a Vietnam War-era Army helicopter assault company taking on a building-sized version of Kong.
War's apes, and its concerns, are more human-scale. Steve Zahn assays a new character, Bad Ape, who used to be housed in a zoo where he was obliged to keep his advanced intelligence hidden from his keepers. That's a swell backstory, but his function in the plot is to shore up War's ties to the original, Charlton Heston-starring Planet of the Apes from 49 years ago. That kind of backfilling isn't necessary, and Zahn's dopey mugging and Jar-Jar Binks-like one-liners feel parachuted in from some Dreamworks kiddie-movie in an attempt to keep War for the Planet of the Apes from being too depressing. But its gravitas and commitment are exactly what earns it a place of pride in our current apocalyptic renaissance: Mad Max: Fury Road; The Leftovers, etc., etc.
Those properties are smart and imaginative, sure. But not a one of them features a monkey** with a shotgun.
*Yes, apes are not monkeys. I know, I know. I was going for a thing, there.