War for the Planet of the Apes

"When's it our turn?" - horses

There isn’t much battle action in “War for the Planet of the Apes,” but it still feels like a war movie — a World War II movie, specifically, set largely in a wintry prison camp, with some captives collaborating with the enemy in the vain hope of postponing their own deaths while others make escape plans. It’s a melancholy film but a hopeful one, with a combination of technical wizardry and soulful acting that’s nothing less than extraordinary.

Onscreen titles summarize where we are after the first two “Planet of the Apes” prequels, “Rise of the…” and “Dawn of the….” The man-made virus that made apes smarter also wiped out most of the human population, and its effect on the survivors is still unfolding. In the two years since the last chapter, ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis in a motion-capture suit) has been in the forests of the northern California, marshaling his monkey armies to defend themselves against the humans who are still trying to destroy them.

Caesar differentiates himself from Koba (Toby Kebbell, seen in flashbacks), the furious ape he conquered in the last film, who wanted to exterminate the humans altogether. Caesar only wants to be left alone. But after a devastating raid on the apes’ camp leaves him personally bereft, Caesar finds himself slipping into thoughts of angry retribution. These emotions put the group at risk, reviving the theme of the whole series: that to become “human” means taking on humanity’s flaws, too.

Among the actual humans, things are also grim. Led by a monkey-hating madman called The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a group of rogue soldiers has taken possession of a weapons depot and turned it into a P.O.W. camp for captured apes, using them as labor to fortify the place against an intervention from humans higher up the command chain who will soon come to stop The Colonel’s unauthorized extermination plan. Much of the film concerns the efforts of Caesar, his kind-hearted orangutan lieutenant Maurice (Karin Konoval), and tribe members Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) and Rocket (Terry Notary) to free their fellow simians from the prison. They’re aided by two new additions, a sweetly self-doubting zoo chimp who thinks his name is Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) and a mute human girl (Amiah Miller) who was orphaned in the fighting and develops a friendship with Maurice.

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B+ (2 hrs., 21 min.; PG-13, some profanity, moderate action violence, most of the monkeys don't wear clothes.)