A platoon of soldiers closes in on a hidden command base in the woods.
Written on the back of their helmets are gung-ho propaganda phrases: “Monkey Killer.” “Endangered Species.” “Bedtime for Bonzo.”
Then they take aim at their unsuspecting targets, and a battle between man and primate commences in gruesome, realistic detail.
“War for the Planet of the Apes” certainly earns its name. But as this third film in the rebooted sci-fi series unfolds, a nagging issue remains. No matter how skillfully made these movies are, they hinge on seeing animals getting mistreated, gunned down and blown up.
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Admittedly, these aren’t really animals. The apes are primarily computer generated, played by human actors wearing motion-capture suits. But the technology that makes these films so convincing also makes them so hard to enjoy.
When a 1968 Charlton Heston shoots a uniformed gorilla with a rifle, the victim is clearly a stuntman in a rubber mask. When Woody Harrelson does it in this picture, it’s like witnessing a gunman open fire in a zoo.
Is that truly entertainment? If so, it’s damn dirty entertainment.
The leader of these apes is the evolved chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis), who can speak while most of his clan communicates through sign language. After repelling numerous and costly attacks by human soldiers led by the Colonel (Harrelson), Caesar heads north on a revenge mission while the rest of his tribe retreats.
Joining his strike team are the judicious orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), loyal chimp Rocket (Terry Notary) and warrior gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite).
Along the way he picks up an elderly circus chimp (an extra-amusing Steve Zahn) and an orphaned human girl (Amiah Miller), who, like a lot of her people, has gone mute. They call her Nova — a name familiar to fans of the 1968 classic (and yet another clever tie-in with its predecessors).
The group treks to the Colonel’s snowbound fortress, where he has enslaved an army of apes to help fortify defenses against an additional enemy.
“This is a holy war. All of human history has led to this moment,” says the Colonel, whose last name might as well be Kurtz.
And war is what he gets.
Filmmaker Matt Reeves (who directed “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) concocts a compelling setup that doesn’t just mimic the previous installments. “War” functions as both a payback Western and a road movie before settling into an “Avatar”-style death match pitting nature versus technology. There’s even a slice of “The Great Escape” thrown in as the knuckle-dragging prisoners scheme to outwit their upright captors.
Helping anchor this hodgepodge of styles is the wise and weary Caesar, who is portrayed by “The Lord of the Rings” veteran Serkis, the undisputed champion of motion-capture dramatics. The sheer weirdness of having the hero be an ape and the villain a human not only offers a welcome novelty, it adds all kinds of subtext.
Many viewers will read political and social ideology into this film, which provides a magnet for interpretation. Sure, some of the anti-immigrant symbolism is rather heavy-handed. Most of the stuff is subtler. More “Animal Farm”-style allegory.
Of all the branches of cinema, special effects look outdated the quickest. Yet it’s hard to imagine better visuals in the future than some of the work here. The close-ups on the flat, orange-furred face of Maurice move beyond photorealistic; they are uncanny in interpreting how an enlightened simian might behave.
But this also makes witnessing these creatures’ fates that much more disquieting.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
‘War for the Planet of the Apes’
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images.