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'War For The Planet Of The Apes' Offers A Masterful Vision Of Humanity's Many Forms


This is FRESH AIR. Six years ago, Fox released "Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes," the first in a series of prequels to the original 1968 classic starring Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall. It was followed three years later by "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes," directed by Matt Reeves, who has now given us a third chapter, "War For The Planet Of The Apes." Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The first thing you notice in "War For The Planet Of The Apes" is how quiet it is. The director, Matt Reeves, is one of those rare Hollywood craftsmen who intuitively trusts the power of silence. And in this masterfully bleak new movie, that silence serves an unusually evocative purpose. It underscores how empty the world might sound with the human race on the verge of extinction. If you've seen the two earlier movies, "Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes" and "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes," you already know how grim the stakes are. More than a decade earlier, an outbreak of Simian Flu began killing off men and women around the globe while giving rise to a supremely intelligent new species of apes.

The brilliance of these films lies in just how skillfully they subvert our sympathies. As the human survivors descend into murderous anarchy, we are drawn deeply into the plight of the gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans, whose capacity for speech, thoughtfulness and emotion is nothing short of astonishing. These apes are now dwelling peacefully in the woods near what used to be San Francisco.

Their hidden compound is brutally ambushed by a human army in the opening minutes, and by the end of the attack, 63 apes are dead. Their leader, a chimp named Caesar, is a wise pacifist sort. And he responds to this tragedy with a maturity and level-headedness that puts his enemies to shame. But even Caesar finally loses his patience when a second round of casualties hits especially close to home, spurring him to set off into the wilderness and hunt down the Army's fanatical leader, the Colonel, played by Woody Harrelson.

As Caesar heads north into snowy mountainous terrain, he will be supported by his loyal sidekicks, including the ever-soulful orangutan Maurice, played by Karin Konoval. He will also make new companions like a wily ex-zoo chimp named Bad Ape wonderfully played by Steve Zahn and a young human girl named Nova, played by a Amiah Miller, who, like much of the surviving human population, has been rendered mute by the simian virus.

By the bloody and often bombastic standards of the genre, "War For The Planet Of The Apes" isn't much of a war movie at all. At times the film plays like an old-school revenge Western sprinkled with elements of Biblical epic and doomsday sci-fi. The second half in which Caesar is captured and thrown into a simian labor camp plays like a crackerjack prison break thriller, a post-apocalyptic great escape.

In one gripping scene, a chained Caesar comes face to face with the Colonel, whose chilling resemblance to another maniacal movie colonel, Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now," is hardly a coincidence.


WOODY HARRELSON: (As The Colonel) Have you finally come save your apes?

ANDY SERKIS: (As Caesar) I came for you.

HARRELSON: (As The Colonel) For me? My God, look at your eyes - almost human. How did you know I was here?

SERKIS: (As Caesar) I was told you were coming, that more soldiers from the north would be joining you here.

HARRELSON: (As The Colonel) Joining me?

SERKIS: (As Caesar) To finish us off for good.

CHANG: You can tell from the spareness of the dialogue and the linger of the actors' rhythms exactly the kind of mood that Reeves is after. But there's nothing pretentious or inflated about his approach. As he demonstrated with his equally fine work on "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes," the director may be something of a formalist, but he also has an old-fashioned belief in the virtues of suspense and narrative drive. And for all the grimness of his vision, the story continually gives way to startling pockets of emotion, signaled but never overpowered by Michael Giacchino's hauntingly beautiful score.

Much has rightly been made of Andy Serkis's performance as Caesar, a seamless weave of digital artistry and actorly soul that represents this series' crowning achievement. But technical supremacy alone is never enough. Crucially, this is the rare franchise in which the grandeur of the vision seems to have evolved perfectly with the visual effects technology rather than being eclipsed by it. This is hardly the first "Planet Of The Apes" movie to function as an allegory of oppression, hysteria and xenophobia, but it is almost certainly the most trenchant and serious-minded of the lot.

It's impossible not to root for these brave and beautiful apes or to feel a sense of alienation from our own comparatively stupid, prideful and empathy-deficient species. But "War For The Planet Of The Apes" isn't a cynical or nihilistic movie. It's a reminder that humanity, or rather the decency that we associate with humanity, comes in many forms - in the face of a talking chimpanzee or in the eyes of a young girl who, though robbed of the ability to speak, can still move us beyond words.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic at the Los Angeles Times.


DAVIES: If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed with the New York City Ballet's former principal ballerina Wendy Whelan, with ProPublica's Jesse Eisinger about why only one corporate executive was convicted after the financial meltdown of 2008 or with comic Kumail Nanjiani and comedy writer Emily V. Gordon about their film "The Big Sick," check out our podcast.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.