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Short Take: War for the Planet of the Apes

(Matt Reeves, USA, 20th Century Fox, July 14)

Every ape death counts in War for the Planet of the Apes, to us and to Andy Serkis’s Caesar, the most nuanced, dynamic leader in big-screen sci-fi today. After U.S. Army soldiers attack Caesar’s forces not far from their deep forest enclave, we’re exhilarated when they retaliate with a lethal shower of arrows straight out of Olivier’s or Branagh’s Henry V.

Caesar wants peaceful co-existence, but his counterpart, Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), who operates like a cult leader, sees the apes as a Darwinian threat. He responds with a night raid on Caesar’s lair that sends Caesar spiraling into personal revenge. After the spectacular sylvan opening, the director, Matt Reeves, and his co-writer, Mark Bomback, meticulously dramatize Caesar’s moral crises in eerie mountain locations—an abandoned ski resort and an arms depot that doubles as a primate concentration camp.

Serkis turns Caesar into a hero as soulful, ravaged, vulnerable, and flawed as Spartacus or Moses. But he’s not the whole show. Karin Konoval’s empathetic orangutan, Maurice, develops a pungent parental chemistry with a mute human girl (Amiah Miller), and Steve Zahn revives the eccentric comic heroism of storybook castaways as a new character, the wizened hermit “Bad Ape.”

The movie’s bold, irreverent use of movie mythology, from The Bridge on the River Kwai to Apocalypse Now, adds to the stirring, immersive entertainment. Michael Giacchino’s inventive score and Michael Seresin’s capacious cinematography propel Reeves and Caesar’s followers to the Promised Land.