The bigger movies get, somehow the smaller we get. Pictures built to entertain us with increasingly elaborate special effects, marathon-length run times and plots that sprawl off the rails within the first 20 minutes don't necessarily make us feel more human. But Matt Reeves' War for the Planet of the Apes is something else, a summer blockbuster that treats its audience members as primates of a higher order. It comes by its thrills honestly. This is a spectacle that trusts us to think.
In the first movie in the rebooted franchise, the 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes (directed by Rupert Wyatt), a bunch of superbright apes--the virus that has made them so smart is lethal to humans--break out of a Northern California research facility and scamper to freedom in a redwood forest. In the Reeves-directed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), set some 10 years later, the apes have built a world of their own, but tensions flare between them and the relatively few surviving humans. The anchor character of those movies and of this one is the chimp Caesar, played, via motion-capture technology, by Andy Serkis. His simian brow is noble. His eyes carry shadows of sorrow and flickers of hope. He's a leader of apes, and men could learn from him too. But in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a hate-filled bonobo named Koba (Toby Kebbell, who appears briefly in this film as well) sparked a war Caesar was unable to stop.
As War for the Planet of the Apes opens, Caesar and his cohorts defend their forest world against a battalion of human soldiers. The apes win, but as a message of peace they send the troops back alive to their leader, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson). A war-hardened loon with rogue ambitions of his own, the Colonel unleashes more violence against the apes, who are simply trying to rebuild their war-torn home. Caesar fights back, though the real demon he's facing is his own anger.
There's ape betrayal, ape bravery, ape joy and lots of ape action in War for the Planet of the Apes. Yet the picture's plot mechanics aren't nearly as significant or as memorable as its characters are: the way they move and interact invites curiosity and even wonder. The apes who have had contact with humankind speak English, but most communicate via sign and body language--their interactions constitute a ballet of interpretive dance and knowing looks. In addition to Caesar, many favorites from the other movies return, the loveliest among them the empathetic orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval). His gentle soul shines through his luminous pie plate of a face. He's a calming influence on Caesar and a watchful parental stand-in for the mute, though never excessively cute, orphan girl (Amiah Miller) who's adopted by the apes. Best of all, though, is the chimp played by Steve Zahn, an old loner who goes by a name some humans gave him long ago: Bad Ape. Bad Ape is actually a great ape, a marvelous, semiforgetful senior citizen who speaks in broken English and whose doddering generosity is the sort that can save the day. (When he holds a pair of binoculars to his eyes the wrong way, the "oooooohhhh" of disappointment that escapes his lips is one of the movie's goofiest little pleasures.)
War for the Planet of the Apes is hardly all joy and light: Harrelson's loose-cannon Colonel is a sadist and wannabe dictator, and the movie contains some harrowing scenes of ape suffering. Be forewarned if you're thinking of taking little kids. But there's plenty of vital poetry in the picture: the sight of apes on horseback, riding off to battle or just trotting along a beach, is strangely stirring, a picture of animal dignity that isn't quite right yet makes all kinds of sense. The special traits of these creatures--their eagerness to do the right thing and their impulse to look out for one another--are qualities to which real humans should aspire. In the words of Bad Ape: "New friends. Special day."