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Apes of wrath

There’s a missing link in ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’

Amiah Miller in “War for the Planet of the Apes”

The original “Planet of the Apes” films are seminal sci-fi. A Civil Rights-era allegory with Chuck Heston as the poster boy for white hegemony, who finds out what happens when the script is flipped. Considering there were assholes still upset about the outcome of the Scopes trial,  the personification of (and sympathizing with) apes in 1968 seemed subversive. I was never as taken by those films as the fans were, though I appreciated the schadenfreude.

Then 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” the first in a sort of reboot/prequel/origin story variant, turned out to be emotional and well-written, with game-changing visuals that inspired a long-missed sense of wonder, largely due to Andy Serkis’ performance as the sentient ape Caesar. Serkis’ emotive wizardry begged the question: should motion-captured performances be nominated for acting awards? Beyond a certain point, you just forget you’re looking at a CG creation. That’s the magic. In a way, it was “Star Wars” all over again.

2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” upped the ante, both technically and narratively, and became the rare sequel, like “The Empire Strikes Back,” that rivals the original. The apes who were ground zero for a Simian Flu that wipes out civilization had to find common ground with the skittish remnants of mankind. It’s a compelling chapter, trading in hope where, for a moment, it seems cooler heads might prevail against human nature.

With a title “War for the Planet of the Apes,” you can guess how that turned out.

It’s a testament to the qualities of the first two films that this entry feels like a bit of a letdown. The story is smaller and too linear. The human-supremacist Colonel (Woody Harrelson) attempts to assassinate Caesar, inadvertently killing Caesar’s family instead. Caesar, tasked with leading his people out of danger across the desert, opts for vengeance.

Returning director Matt Reeves tells more than he shows—the opposite of what made the first 30 minutes of “Dawn” so masterful. The exposition lends an on-rails vibe to a plot that sags in the middle act. Harrelson’s overt God complex lacks the shading of past villains—he’s building a wall!—and the themes of biblical sacrifice and revenge are none too subtle.

Yes, the spectacle doesn’t disappoint, but “War” feels like a detour.

For more from Joe, read his article on the return of “Game of Thrones.”