Somehow, while we were worrying about superheroes and star destroyers and hot rods, the goddamned Planet of the Apes movies became the most vital and resonant big-budget film series in the contemporary movie firmament. And they did it with the most confrontational of high concepts: Humans suck, and now the apes are the good guys.
This new film picks up a couple of years after 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which ended with all-out war being declared between the ascendant apes and the declining remnants of the human race. Now, the tribe of apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) is hoping to flee to safety, behind a mountain range and across a desert -- beyond which, they believe, humanity will not follow them.
But of course, the humans won't stop their pursuit. One of this film's most striking achievements -- especially in its first half -- is making us fear even the silhouette of a human. The men in this movie might as well be the xenomorphs from the Alien movies: strange, unspeakable beasts uncurling out of the shadows like demons from your worst nightmare.
Leading the humans is the messianic Colonel (Woody Harrelson), who inspires a kind of mindless devotion from his soldiers. The humans themselves are grappling with a mutation of the Simian flu, which has begun to take speech and intelligence from many of those survivors who were once immune to its effects, and the cruel acts by this Kurtz-like figure are a death rattle for his race. There's something weirdly cathartic about the spectacle of humanity reduced to an animalistic throng. And it gives the film a disturbing, powerful kick.