In theaters Friday, July 11
3 stars (out of 4 stars)
This is bananas.
One of the most fantastic films of the season is a second sequel to a reboot of a franchise that dates back 46 years. More than just a pic featuring apes run amok, the action-packed drama is front-loaded with gripping suspense and intelligence. It also delivers a first-rate, fully committed performance — from an actor (Andy Serkis) doing stop-motion work as an ape named Caesar.
Chew on that while you read a primate primer:
Planet of the Apes (1968): The original classic, featuring one of the most shocking twists in cinematic history.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973): The not-so-memorable, not-so-classics.
Planet of the Apes (2001): The embarrassing, Tim Burton-directed reboot flop. For proof, Google "Helena Bonham Carter" and "Ape costume."
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011): The surprisingly deft installment starring James Franco as a scientist whose experimental drug treatments on his pet chimp Caesar eventually leads to an Ape uprising in San Francisco.
This edition brings audiences up to speed in an effectively haunting opening montage. Several years have passed since the apes engaged in warfare on the Golden Gate Bridge, and the ensuing "simian flu" has wiped out millions of humans. Caesar and his highly evolved, highly intelligent tribe now live in the woods near the remnants of the City by the Bay. They don't rely on electricity or heat to live and eat or resort to violence to solve conflict. Humans? According to the apes, they might be extinct, and, besides, who needs 'em anyway. As sage Casear — a new dad — notes to Koba (Toby Kebbell), they destroyed themselves and deserve their fates. Very heavy, thought-provoking stuff.
This utopian society is rudely interrupted when a small group of surviving, gun-toting humans (headed by Jason Clarke and Keri Russell) invade their habitat and seek their assistance. A broken-down dam is in the vicinity, and if it's repaired, civilization could be restored. Pacifist Caesar wants to make it work if guns are disabled and that's a big if; livid, revenge-seeking Koba wants to go rogue and kill.
Watching the apes take on the power struggle is a compelling marvel. All of them have individual characteristics, making it simple to differentiate between them. They weigh the issues with each other in a unique sign language and have the ability to communicate with humans via erudite English. (Don't know how the special effects team pulled this off; don't want to know).
Out of context and in the wrong hands, these scenes could have been uncomfortably, laughably absurd. Russell cooing over a baby ape because it reminds her of her deceased daughter? Gag. But this is an ace production enhanced by a high caliber of talent. There's real turmoil behind Serkis' eyes, and when Koba & Co. turn on him, the hurt is evident. Clarke, a mesmerizing Australian actor who also worked with an ape in Zero Dark Thirty, brings gravitas to the role as well. This is not a showdown of good versus evil. So sophisticated is the writing, you'll root for everyone.
Then the drawn-out and inevitable carnage-filled spectacle kicks in. Why, look, it's an army of apes! Riding horseback into San Francisco! And they're carrying Uzis! The action moves briskly, yet the climax feels like a slight letdown only because the first half is so innovative. It doesn't matter if a CGI-enhanced damn, dirty ape is blowing stuff up or a CGI-enhanced alien — we've all been there, done that many times already this summer.
At least the climax practically guarantees another sequel. And this dystopian future never looked so good.