War for the Planet of the Apes (12A)

Four stars

Dir: Matt Reeves

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With: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Karin Konoval

Runtime: 140 minutes

THERE remains a certain snootiness in some quarters when it comes to motion capture movies such as The Planet at the Apes franchise, The Lord of the Rings, Avatar and others.

Deploying technology that marries high tech with acting, allowing humans to play apes and almost anything else a storyteller’s heart desires, is somehow seen as not quite cinematic cricket, a bit too bells and whistles and gizmos compared to the “real” business of acting. The films themselves are seen as essentially kids’ stuff, not to be taken seriously.

What a bunch of overripe bananas that is. Some of the most thrilling and moving action pictures in recent years have been those in the Planet of the Apes franchise, and this, the third in the trilogy reinvented for the Noughties, is no exception. Never mind the chattering about special effects, this monkey business is seriously entertaining.

Matt Reeves, who directed the last instalment, 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, opens his story as the war between humans and primates, which began with a revolt against animal testing, is reaching a terrible end game. The leader of the apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis) has been in hiding for two years, having been forced to flee with his group. How the war has turned out was not of Caesar’s making or choosing, but he is human enemy number one nevertheless.

Leading the hunt for him are soldiers marching through a jungle, their helmets daubed with such gung-ho declarations as “Bedtime for Bonzo”, and “monkey killer”. It will not be the first time Reeves reaches for a Vietnam war movie reference.

The apes, having learned of a place where they might be able to live in peace away from humans, do not want a fight. But they have not counted on the obsession of the Colonel. Played by Woody Harrelson, the Colonel has been on his own personal journey into the heart of darkness. Cut adrift from regular forces and in charge of his own militia, the shaven-headed, wild-eyed one is as much an enemy of the state as Caesar. Caught between a vengeful psychopath and a vindictive state, the sooner Caesar can lead his family and the other apes out of there the better. But fate and the writers, Reeves and Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard, Dawn, The Wolverine) have other ideas.

Since the Golden Gate Bridge scene in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the bar has been set sky high for ape versus human screen battles, and Reeves meets expectations and more. Sometimes the scraps are low tech, with apes on horseback riding into the fray as if in a western; on other occasions the action is more wham-bam, rocket launcher-fuelled spectacular, all of it carried out in a post-apocalyptic, snow-drenched landscape.

While Reeves, who made his name with Cloverfield, impresses with the noisy stuff, it is in the quieter moments, the interaction between the apes and between them and humans, that the picture becomes truly stirring. Serkis is superb, playing Caesar as a heroic figure battling against fate and treachery and his own doubts. There is a chance for other characters to shine as never before, including Maurice (Karin Konoval) the wartime consigliere, never short of wise advice, and a newcomer, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), who is more of a desperately sad ape, having been subjected to the worst of human behaviour. As with all the primates, Bad Ape’s eyes are the very stuff of windows into the soul. Harrelson, meanwhile, was born to play a Kurtz character, and duly rips the bones out of the part.

From its Sixties beginnings, and across page and screen, the Apes franchise has exerted a particular emotional pull, as if we have always wanted the best science fiction treatment for our nearest and dearest relatives. Reeves achieves that here, even managing to loop the story round to the beginning again in a way that will delight existing fans and spark new ones. Go apes!