Apparently all the new Planet of the Apes films needed to do to really hit a home run was take the humans out of the equation. It's what this whole trilogy has been leading to, really, as we dipped our toes into the rise, dawn and now war of this burgeoning civilization of apes and the humans who are desperately and often dishonorably fighting for their survival.
"War for the Planet of the Apes " is a riveting and surprisingly poignant epic that's a shade above the rest of the franchise dreck populating every multiplex in the country. It's as though director Matt Reeves, screenwriter Mark Bomback and the production actually put care and thought into what they were doing with their characters.
Reeves wastes no time getting the action started with a gripping opening battle. We enter the world through the eyes of some terrified intruders. A group of human soldiers walk through the woods in search of Caesar (Andy Serkis). They don't know whether he's still alive, but their leader is hell-bent on exterminating the apes.
Caesar and his followers have been operating from a secret hideout in the woods — a gorgeous little Eden tucked away behind a thundering waterfall. When the soldiers find them, the apes fight back swiftly and effectively and nearly take out all of the combatants. Caesar spares the lives of the few survivors to send a message back to their leader that the apes are not savages and just want to live in peace separately from the humans.
Of course the message inspires exactly the opposite reaction and the beautiful and harrowing and nearly silent nighttime raid that comes soon leaves the apes no choice but to abandon their home and hit the road in search of safety. Caesar, however, decides he must go off alone and avenge his community by destroying the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a deranged Kurtz figure who is truly one of the best true villains we've had in quite some time.
A few of Caesar's comrades follow him on his journey to find the Colonel. Along the way they pick up a young, mute girl (Amiah Miller) and a tiny, manic and adorable zoo ape voiced by Steve Zahn who has the same sort of comic energy as Yoda on Dagobah (without all the force stuff and Jedi training). When they arrive at the Colonel's base, they find a much bleaker and more complicated situation than they could have ever expected.
To say too much more about the plot would probably be a mistake and part of the greatness of Bomback's script is how even in following a pretty standard exodus story, it still manages to surprise and captivate throughout, and with minimal dialogue too. At times, it even feels like "War for the Planet of the Apes" is essentially a silent movie with the mute girl and the majority of the apes communicating in sign language.
Caesar also continues to be a fascinating and truly complex character that's as well-conceived and executed as a live-action performance. Harrelson, too, is a menacing delight in his role that has more layers than might meet the eye.
"War for the Planet of the Apes" should be a satisfactory conclusion for the series, but that's naively assuming franchises are even allowed to have intentional endings. Regardless of what happens or doesn't happen next for the Planet of the Apes, this installment is very simply a great time at the movies.
"War for the Planet of the Apes," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 for "sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images." Running time: 142 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr