‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ Is a Potent Reminder of What Big Movies Can Be

In a sea of "Transformers" sequels and "Mummy" reboots, this franchise flick sticks out.

Big movies don’t have to be terrible. Every time a studio shits out a Trans5ers or Cruise Like the Mummy or some such summer franchise nonsense and critics (and, increasingly, audiences) run gagging from the theater, the notion persists that we were schmucks to expect anything more; these movies aren’t made to tell a story or reflect a sensibility, but as pre-packaged focus-grouped Product, primarily for the international market, and they don’t have to be any good, so why go to the effort?

But there is an answer, and a good one: that when the hefty budgets and staggering resources of a major studio production are at the disposal of a filmmaker with genuine ambition and intelligence, they can produce something really special, a work in which the power of the ideas matches the skill of the craft. Matt Reeves’s War for the Planet of the Apes is such a film, and God knows it’s got no right to be: it’s the second sequel to a “reboot” of a film series that also beget two short-lived television series (one live-action, the other animated) and a previous, failed attempt at a big-screen resurrection (courtesy Tim Burton, circa 2001). Such a pedigree does not exactly indicate a property rife with the possibilities of fresh inspiration. But here we are.

It’s the second Apes flick for Mr. Reeves, following 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and its opening titles begin by walking us quickly through the events of the previous films (thankfully – too many modern franchises assume we’ve all memorized the previous entries beat-by-beat, rather than wandering in with vague memories of the earlier movies. Hi, Marvel). Those films concerned the “Simian Flu virus,” which wiped out the bulk of the humankind. We pick up with our hero, the intelligent chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis), and his apes evading “all that remains of the U.S. Army” – led by a crazed colonel (Woody Harrelson), who finds their camp and kills Caesar’s wife and children.

That sequence is bloody and brutal, setting up the revenge story that drives the narrative, and though the film is steeped in sci-fi and has “war” in its title, it spends less of its first act trafficking in the themes and tropes of science fiction than of Westerns (as grimy and bloody as Peckinpah’s). Then it becomes a prison movie, and then, finally, a war story. Such summarizing makes the picture sound more jarring than it is; its tonal and stylistic shifts are smoothed by the skill and patience of Reeves’s storytelling. But most impressively, it’s a big summer sequel that doesn’t talk down to its audience: most of the interactions between the apes are done in subtitles rather than spoken language (though they could’ve easily cheated their way out of that), and though it has a major new human star, the story is told, without fail, from Caesar’s point of view, and we only see Harrelson when he does (which is to say, hardly at all in the film’s first half).

Thus, as with the last two entries in this Apes series, much of its effectiveness is reliant on the technology, and in how seamlessly it captures Mr. Serkis’s powerful performance. Motion-capture is one of those subsets of film technology I don’t really understand, and as far as it’s used in the Apes movies, I don’t much want to; at this point, it seems easier to just shrug that it’s movie magic, that Andy Serkis is a next-level genius, and be done with it. He’s not the only one who’s figured out how to put across real acting through the bells and whistles – Steve Zahn turns up here as a runaway ape who becomes a reluctant guide, and the way he barks the simple line “Not go back there” conveys a wounded, haunted quality that few actors could achieve, with or without flesh.

The picture has its stumbles: the early passages get a bit too bogged down in catching us up with characters who, let’s be honest, most of us don’t remember, and while this film’s echoes of Apocalypse Now are a good deal more graceful than Kong: Skull Island’s earlier this year, the homage is hammered a bit too bluntly with the display of “Ape-Pocalypse Now” graffiti on an escape tunnel (that should be an Entertainment Weekly headline, not an actual moment in the movie). But if Harrelson’s look, body language, and even vocal tics recall Brando’s Kurtz, the shout-out works – and he augments them with his own flourishes of sadism and madness, creating the necessary conflict to motor the thrilling climax. And this is where the full scope of Reeves’s gifts become clear, in a marriage of music, cutting, and ingenious action that sets up a battle of real stakes, rather than the factory setting of empty spectacle.

What’s most arresting about War for the Planet of the Apes, ironically enough, is its humanity. Real talk: it’s a risk to make a movie about talking, fighting apes and not end up with laughs, intentional or not. But these films challenge us to treat these characters, to regard them and think of them, as we would human characters played by these same actors. That the technology exists to make that proposition possible is worth celebrating – as is the fact that it’s at the service of a movie that aims to smarten its audience up, rather than dumb us down.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” is out Friday.