‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ superb, smart and relevant

For every new, dumb “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Transformers” sequel, studios are offering summer blockbusters that actually have reasons for being. “War for the Planet of the Apes” is one of them.

Not only smart, dazzling and entertaining, it speaks to fears and concerns that are as relevant today as they were in the 1960s when the series originated.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” looks into problems of racism and war, or, more generally, fear of the Other.

Remarkably, it effortlessly places viewers in the shoes — or primate feet — of the “Other,” encouraging us to see not only their plight, but also the fatal flaws of humans.

The previous two films in this rebooted series, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” — both set in San Francisco — contained sympathetic humans, characters that wanted peace and harmony with their fellow creatures.

Now things are not so simple.

The new sequel begins where “Dawn” left off; the battle was won, but more human soldiers were on their way.

The Simian Flu has mutated, leaving some surviving humans unable to speak or reason.

Andy Serkis stars as Caesar, the intelligent leader of the apes. Once again, it’s an astonishingly soulful, intuitive performance, showing the struggle between reason and instinct, compassion and revenge.

After a brutal attack on his home, Caesar hits the road and find the man responsible. He is joined by apes Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite).

Along the way, they meet an adorable little girl (Amiah Miller) — possibly affected by the flu — and a former zoo ape called “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn).

Woody Harrelson plays the main human character, an unnamed colonel clearly modeled after Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now.”

This colonel has made enemies of the apes — enslaving them, forcing them to work without food or water, and separating parents from babies. He also has angered other humans with his tactics.

In one great scene, the Colonel and Caesar have a meeting of the minds, wherein both discover the subtle complexities of the other’s motivations. It’s no longer as simple as good vs. evil.

Gifted director Matt Reeves (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) returns, succeeding beautifully on a technical level, with his expert use of landscape and space, and on an emotional one, coaxing great performances from Serkis, Zahn and Harrelson.

It’s a film to enjoy this summer and to remember on into the fall.

War for the Planet of the Apes
Three and a half stars
Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval
Written by Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves
Directed by Matt Reeves
Rated PG-13
Running time 2 hours, 20 minutes

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