Times change. “War for the Planet of the Apes,” directed by Matt Reeves, is the grimmest episode so far, and also the strongest, a superb example — rare in this era of sloppily constructed, commercially hedged cinematic universes — of clear thinking wedded to inventive technique in popular filmmaking. The distinction of this run of “Planet of the Apes” movies has been its commitment to the venerable belief that science fiction belongs to the literature of ideas, and its willingness to risk seeming to take itself too seriously. Each episode has pursued a stark ethical or political problem, and each has shifted the moral ground from human to ape.
“Rise” was about how people treat and mistreat animals, about the tension between recognizing them as sentient beings and the long habit of exploiting and confining them. “Dawn” was a wishful parable of decolonization and counterinsurgency, concerned with the competing but equally legitimate claims of two tribes occupying adjacent territory. “War” — which, in spite of its title, is less a war film than a western wrapped around a prison movie — vindicates Koba’s view of humanity as irredeemably cruel and deceitful.
The memory of Koba’s own treachery is kept alive, as some of his followers have drifted from militant anti-Caesarism to collaboration with the enemy species. There is a new nemesis in town, a renegade colonel played by Woody Harrelson, who goes full Heart of Darkness, staging a one-man remake of “Apocalypse Now” in a medical base he has refashioned into a concentration camp. He has Marlon Brando’s clean-shaven dome, Robert Duvall’s mirrored sunglasses and Dennis Hopper’s manic verbosity. The horror! The horror!
Really, though, it’s a lot of fun, in spite of the somber picture I’ve been painting. Mr. Reeves, who also directed “Dawn,” has a dark vision, but also a light touch when necessary, and, above all, a commitment to creating a world that is coherent as well as fantastical. This world is also intensely and somewhat unimaginatively masculine. The default setting for primate social organization in these movies, human and otherwise, is patriarchal, and while a few female apes and a young human girl appear on screen, the filmmakers’ inability to flesh out the familial and affective dimensions of an otherwise richly rendered reality is frustrating.
But still, the motion-captured, digitally sculpted apes are so natural, so expressive, so beautifully integrated into their environment, that you almost forget to be astonished by the nuances of thought and emotion that flicker across their faces, often seen in close-up. Andy Serkis’s performance as Caesar is one of the marvels of modern screen acting, and it’s complemented by those of Karin Konoval, reprising her role as the wise orangutan Maurice, and Steve Zahn, as a sad-clown sidekick named Bad Ape.
Caesar and Maurice communicate in primitive English and sign language, and for long stretches their adventures unfold without much human interaction, though they do adopt a mute human orphan (Amiah Miller) shortly before they meet Bad Ape. Our ilk is in a bad way, and not only because of the fanatical, desperate militarism represented by the Colonel. A new strain of virus is robbing people of their ability to speak, accelerating a reversal of species hierarchy set in motion two movies ago when Caesar first howled the word “no.”
He is a grayer, sadder hero now, and in “War” he succumbs for a while to a vengeful impulse at odds with his essential high-mindedness. You could say that he is putting his humanity at risk, or that he’s only human, after all, but of course both descriptions would be absurd. We’ll have to come up with a new vocabulary, but while we still have this one — and while flesh-and-blood people are still directing digital gorillas and chimps — I’ll just say that it’s good to see a movie so thoroughly humane.