Nobody wants to watch regular old serious films about boring just humans in just regular life anymore, and the western isn't nearly as popular as it used to be, so it often falls to superheroes and space battles and sci-fi monkey operas to deadlift the burden of culture's Deep Thoughts. Popcorn entertainment of the past is now the chief host for gestures toward big ideas and heavy meaning. It's not always a comfy fit.
The Planet of The Apes film series that dominated the childhood of every person who attended elementary school in the 1970s (me, for example) were groovy carriers of those gestural moments. They were designed for maximum shlock appeal and didn't shy away from ham-fisted metaphor. They were bad and good in equal measure and if you were lucky enough to also own the action figures you could spend third grade role-playing every kind of cruelty and sacrifice under the sun. Perfect, really.
The newly rebooted Apes saga has taken on more responsibility. It's darker, deeper, complicated and urgent. It refuses to accept anything less than being viewed through grim-faced 3D glasses. And if that makes it all a little less goofy than the concept deserves -- remember, this is about talking apes who take over the world -- then so be it, I guess. It helps that they have Andy Serkis.
Serkis plays Caesar, the leader of the mutated ape tribe that survived when a genetically engineered virus wiped out almost all the stupid non-apes on Earth. In the forest outside San Francisco, Caesar is the king of a peaceful nation. But the people who survived, currently blockaded inside the city's limits, won't be satisfied until they can jumpstart a nearby dam to provide power. And a few of Caesar's subjects aren't as committed to non-war as their Ape President. There's going to be a rumble.
How they get to that blast of violence (no major plot details divulged here, so you can keep reading), with all the special effects a bigger, badder budget can buy, is the meat of the story and it moves along like an ape-driven tank of visceral thrills. Along the way the Big Ideas -- the history of human conflict, xenophobia, greed, the inevitability of evil and brutality, the anomaly of trust and compassion -- roll up and stomp around a bit, but they never become ponderous. There's too much action and fighting to get to and that stuff is way more important.
It's all the feels that really matter here, anyway, thanks to Serkis's intense, emotionally complex performance. It's his show from start to finish, and he earns the film a measure of true gravity it otherwise wouldn't have. Good thing, too, because the human characters are mostly disposable creatures, all the better to annhilate them in the next movie as this place finally becomes "a planet where apes evolved from men." War is coming! Go apes! Whoo hoooo!
So yes, ape shall not kill ape. But that doesn't mean ape shall not ride on a horse holding a machine gun in each hand and instigating an inter-species world war. We can all be seriously grateful for that kind of serious fun.