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Live and let die

'Apes' reboot is satisfying, if not daring.


GUERRILLA WARFARE: Great visual effects, but little new otherwise.
  • GUERRILLA WARFARE: Great visual effects, but little new otherwise.

By now, you can read the rebooted "Planet of the Apes" trilogy in a couple of different ways. One is as parable that hinges on man's hubristic belief that tech will lead to a brighter future. In the first two movies, an experimental dementia drug turns apes super-smart, while another version of the drug spreads around the world as a pathogen, killing 99.8 percent of humans. Apes seem content to live and let live, but both species begin to see one another as rivals as one rises and the other declines. In "War for the Planet of the Apes," Earth appears to be up for grabs. So, of course, human soldiers are taking the fight to the apes, on the assumption that they're going to come for us at some point. It turns out to be a recipe to get our human asses kicked.

Another way to read it is from the apes' side: They've always been more worthy, more human, than we've given them credit for. This is the long arc that has to bend over the course of the films, and in "War," the ape-ness has been reduced almost to a sidebar to an otherwise pretty conventional military revenge film. By now, writer/director Matt Reeves has brought the apes to a level of humanity that essentially surpasses that of the humans, who are scared and cruel and making idiot decisions throughout. It's still a hoot if you like seeing an orangutan ride a horse, or a chimpanzee throw a grenade, but otherwise the story has lost most of the motivating sci- in its fi-.

Andy Serkis is back again as Caesar, the hyper-intelligent alpha-ape whose overtures for peace have gone ignored. After his ape clan now is a murderous colonel played by Woody Harrelson, steering his soldiers in a Machiavellian mission that lets him take on shades of Colonel Kurtz. (Lest the parallels escape us, a prominent piece of graffiti reading "APEOCALYPSE NOW" will drive it home.) In a raid on the apes' Ewokian forest compound, the colonel kills Caesar's wife and son, setting the level-headed ape leader on a mission of vengeance. While other apes relocate en masse, he and a small band go in search of the colonel. Along the way they find humans suffering from a mysterious ailment, including an orphaned girl (Amiah Miller) they adopt for the trek. A comic relief hermit ape (Steve Zahn) rounds out the rag-tag group.

The apes' kindnesses turn out to be strategic victories in the long run, in the tradition of a sports flick where even the clumsy kid winds up making a play in the big game. Those tedious touches wound an otherwise admirably patient film. By the time the story takes us to the colonel's big snowy mountain compound, and the apes are going guerrilla (ha), "War" takes on the conventions of a feel-good prison break flick. The first of these movies ("Rise of the Planet of the Apes") already pulled off a tighter escape sequence, and in a smaller space — apes cooperating in the most rudimentary ways to make a break from the monkey house.

The biggest flaw in "War" is that lack of discovery. If apes are equal to humans in their capacities to feel and learn and fire a rocket launcher, then what's the attraction of watching them, instead of anyone else in particular, blow things up? But such a critique requires two caveats. The overheated, if satisfying, climax does require the apes to be apes in order to survive — it's worth the wait. And the visual effects are so excellent that real pathos comes through in the performances. The demands of your usual Hollywood mega-franchise may have sucked some of the originality and daring out of this story, but it also pays you back in raw wonder. Just dim your higher mental functions a bit and you'll have a blast.

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