By Richard von Busack
Comparing movies to food is the hack’s crutch, but Matt Reeves’ excellent War for the Planet of the Apes is like a parfait made of several delicious levels.
In their redwoods hideout, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes hold out against an attack by the humans. Gorilla scouts lead the way for the humans, in a skirmish of spears and arrows versus gun-power. After winning the battle, Caesar gets word of a possible homeland in the desert.
What starts as a war movie becomes a Western, complete with Caesar as a grim Chimp Eastwood on horseback. Caesar even acquires a Walter Brennan sidekick in the form of the piebald, cracked Bad Ape (Steve Zahn, demonstrating boggling synthespian skills). As they ride out to find a new homeland, they adopt Nova (Amiah Miller), a helpless mute girl; it’s like the version of The Searchers that film fans always dream about, told from the Comanches’ point of view.
Then to Spartacus as Caesar harrows a slave-labor camp. Woody Harrelson brilliantly apes Brando, as a bald, beyond-the-beyond Colonel in charge. Finally, War resolves itself as a hairier version of The Ten Commandments, complete with a twist on the Red Sea inundation.
Rather than looking like a dog-eared swipe-file, this terrific ape-opera honors the originals. It has the freshness of a story that you’re hearing for the first time. The apes have dignity and innocence, and are the kind of noble savages that few film viewers could possibly enjoy in human form. The political satire in this Apes movie is as timely as this film is, likely, timeless. War sets the stage for the astronaut Taylor’s arrival from the skies in the 1968 Planet of the Apes, and the shocking news he will bring—news as unbelievable as the theory of evolution is to the religious—of the apes’ long-ago subordination to humanity.