The best thing about the rebooted “Planet of the Apes” film series has always been the apes. These motion-capture creatures – representing intelligent, even soulful chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos – outshine their human counterparts in terms of emotional connection with the audience. They may not be people, but they are, in every sense of the word, fully rounded characters.
The title of the newest installment in the franchise, “War for the Planet of the Apes,” is something of a misnomer. Although set 15 years after the science experiment that first gave rise to smart, talking apes “War” includes fewer scenes of pitched battle than moments of quiet contemplation and conversation.
All this is explained in a short preamble to the action of the new film, which begins with the apes ensconced in their fortified encampment in the deep woods of Northern California. Although the apes just want to be left alone, and there is a contingent of humans who are inclined to leave them in peace, there is an incursion by renegade human commandos – led by a bloodthirsty officer known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) – that kills some of the family members of the apes’ leader Caesar, a chimpanzee played by Andy Serkis, whose expressive, guttural vocal performance and mimelike physicality anchors the film.
This triggers a vendetta between Caesar and the Colonel, whose troops round up and imprison many of the apes, for slave labor, just as they are moving camp to avoid additional attacks. Among those captured: Caesar and his only surviving son, the infant Cornelius (Devyn Dalton).
With Caesar out of the action, though not out of commission – despite being tied, seething, to a wooden structure that lends him the silhouette of a crucified, simian Jesus – the story shifts to the small band of apes still at large, plus a couple of newcomers. This group includes, in addition the wonderfully wise elder Maurice the orangutan (Karin Konoval, a veteran of the previous two films), a mute little human girl who has been orphaned (Amiah Miller) and a talkative yet wryly doleful zoo-escapee chimp who introduces himself only as Bad Ape. In this last role, Steve Zahn delivers a memorable turn, transcending a part that might otherwise have been used for little more than comic relief, and leaving viewers with a sense of genuine compassion.
Though much of this connection can be attributed to the actors – and CGI wizards – who give life to these nonhuman characters, kudos is also due to the storytelling skills of director and co-writer Matt Reeves (“Let Me In”), who did such a fine job with the previous “Apes” film. Along with returning writer Mark Bomback, Reeves spins a gripping, visually stunning and emotionally complex tale of otherness – one that examines, against its us-vs.-them subtext, not just what it means to be human, but also humane.
“War for the Planet of the Apes” may have the body of an action film, but it has the soul of an art-house drama and the brains of a political thriller.