It's not unusual for genre fiction to offer compelling allegories for our time. It's rare those allegories are so thorny that you need to wrestle with them for a while.
Three movies into its 21st-century incarnation, the "Planet of the Apes" saga has become one of popular culture's most fascinating explorations of humanity at its worst—and, occasionally, its best. In 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, director Matt Reeves crafted a tale that echoes the War on Terror so unsettlingly we don't know whether to root for the humans. Now, with War for the Planet of the Apes, Reeves has attempted an even bolder gambit. The story is told entirely from the point of view of the apes, with the few humans as clear villains of the piece. Even then, there's a lot about the behavior of the movie's protagonist that challenges our notion of what makes a hero.
That hero is Caesar (Andy Serkis), the chimp who still leads the ape troop in the Northern California forest, several years into the plague that wiped out most of the human race. An unexpected reappearance of armed humans alarms Caesar, and an act of mercy on his part leads to an unexpected attack that costs him dearly. When he learns the identity of the man responsible—a relentless warlord known only as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson)—Caesar makes the unfamiliar-to-him choice of seeking revenge.
Any discussion of these movies should begin with a bow to Andy Serkis, whose motion-capture performances as Caesar are doomed to be ignored when discussing great movie acting. His body and eyes provide the frame that gives the CGI-generated chimpanzee his soul, creating a character on whom the burden of leadership always seems to hang heavy. In some ways, Caesar is a model of good leadership: cautious, thoughtful, slow to violence. Serkis plays Caesar as Daniel Day-Lewis' Lincoln in simian form, and the result is just as magnificent.
- You mad?
These qualities make it unnerving when Caesar becomes a force for retribution. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes offered the ape Koba, a radical convinced that there is no co-existing with humans, as a foil to Caesar. Now Caesar shows some Koba within himself.
There's an external threat, too. Harrelson does a fine job portraying the kind of separatist militia leader whose rhetoric makes a discomfiting amount of sense. War for the Planet of the Apes presents a mutation of the "Simian Flu" virus that has begun robbing humans of their speech, and The Colonel views it as an existential threat. "This is a holy war," he says at one point, convinced that speech is a defining part of what makes us human. The fact that Caesar can also speak reveals how personal pain has led the Colonel to abandon a fuller sense of what defines humanity.
All of that is heady stuff, but these movies are not tedious philosophical exercises. Much of the second half of War for the Planet of the Apes becomes a prison-escape movie, full of tension and close calls. The grim tone that Reeves brings to these stories makes it particularly crucial to have a comic-relief character in the form of Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a chimp who has been living in isolation in an abandoned ski lodge. War for the Planet of the Apes might not be the kind of light-hearted fun we expect from summer movies, but it's adventure with a richer payoff than beating the bad guy: It's about finding the strength to recognize the bad guy in ourselves.
War for the Planet of the Apes opens at Missoula AMC 12 Fri., July 14.