Sci-fi has become the domain of mindless spectacle, but “War for the Planet of the Apes” is something different, a subdued and somber science fiction film, with only small pockets of action. Most of the film consists of quiet conversation, and because most of the apes can communicate only through sign language, many of those conversations are subtitled. “War” is a conscientious and mostly successful attempt to take science fiction in a thoughtful and intelligent direction.
As “War” opens, the humans have scattered the ape forces and are putting the prisoners into massive holding pens. Caesar — the Gandhi of the apes — wants a cease-fire and envisions a world in which humans and apes can live in harmony. But both sides seem headed toward confrontation.
In a movie heavy with special effects — the apes are computer-generated through a process called performance capture — “War” has three strong performances. Andy Serkis as Caesar carries himself as if the fate of the world rested on his choices. Steve Zahn, who lives in Central Kentucky, plays a chimpanzee known as “Bad Ape,” a timid fellow traumatized by things he has seen. Woody Harrelson portrays the human Colonel, whose ambition is to kill every ape and save the Earth for his own species. The Colonel is the supposed villain of the piece, but in Harrelson’s insightful rendering, the Colonel has gone off some existential edge, and there’s no reaching him.
Although things look grim for the apes, there’s a disease going around that is robbing humans of speech and making them less intelligent, a kind of airborne Alzheimer’s that can hit anybody. Back in 1968, with World War II a recent memory and the Cold War raging, the destruction of humanity was envisioned as self-inflicted, the result of nuclear war. This new series posits something different, and the new fantasy — human stupidity combined with the random cruelty of nature — feels right for our era. That is, an era tormented not so much by paranoia or terror as by a complete and utter philosophical exhaustion.
‘War for the Planet of the Apes’
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, and some disturbing images. 2:20. Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.