In the role of Caesar, leader of the simian resistance in “War for the Planet of the Apes,” Andy Serkis again proves that in the highly specialized realm of performance-capture acting, he has no peer.
Clad in digitized fur and flesh, he gives a performance of great subtlety and power. He does it largely with his eyes. Pain, compassion and regal authority are there in his gaze, riveting the attention and engaging audience sympathies.
It’s remarkable work, building on and deepening what he brought to the role in 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the previous films in the latest iteration of the “Planet of the Apes” saga.
Set two years after the events of “Dawn,” “War” is forbiddingly grim, the darkest entry in the “Apes” franchise by far. The war is between humanity and apekind, the latter having had their intelligence enhanced by a man-made virus, the former bordering on extinction owing to that same virus, which has mutated out of control into a plague deadly to humans.
At the heart of the struggle is Caesar, rallying his fellow apes in their forest redoubt in the Muir Woods north of San Francisco and struggling to protect them from a rogue Army colonel (Woody Harrelson) bent on eradicating the apes in the hope of somehow heading off the plague.
Writer-director Matt Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback, who had the same duties in “Dawn,” have combined elements of Spartacus and Moses in Caesar, who is flogged and crucified (though not killed) by the colonel as he tries to lead his followers to an idyllic promised land where they will be free of the torments of the humans.
The movie’s darkness is deepest in a long central section that evokes the Holocaust with the apes enslaved and locked up in a concentration camp run by the colonel. Genocide, as it applies to apes, is the colonel’s goal.
Harshly implacable in the role, Harrelson delivers the key line — “There are times when it is necessary to abandon our humanity to save humanity” — echoing the famous “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it” from the Vietnam War.
This bleak view of human beings has been part and parcel of “Planet of the Apes” movies since the 1968 hit that launched the franchise. Charlton Heston’s agonized cry upon seeing the ruined Statue of Liberty on postapocalyptic Earth, “You maniacs! You blew it up! … damn you all to hell!” set the tone. “War” is just the latest rendering of that hell.
War for the Planet of the Apes
☆☆☆ 1/2 stars out of 5
Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller, Steve Zahn.
Director: Matt Reeves
Running time: 2:22
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images.