I don’t know when it happened, but it happened. Somehow, while we were worrying about superheroes and star destroyers and hot rods and whether Captain America could beat up Superman or whatever, 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.
But of course, the humans won’t stop their pursuit. Sometimes, they come in small, heavily armed invading armies, using turncoat apes as slaves and scouts. Sometimes, they come in quiet raiding parties. One of this film’s most striking achievements — especially in its first half — is making us fear even the very silhouette of a human being. The men in this movie might as well be the xenomorphs from Aliens: strange, unspeakable beasts uncurling out of the shadows like demons from your worst nightmare.
Leading the humans is a messianic Colonel (Woody Harrelson), who inspires a kind of mindless devotion from his soldiers. I’m not sure if the Colonel has a name, but I’m gonna call him Kurtz, because he’s clearly channeling Marlon Brando’s portrayal of that character from Apocalypse Now, which itself was based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. (By the way, this is the second angry ape movie this year to reference Francis Ford Coppola’s film; what’s up with that?) Harrelson finds ways to bring shading to this monster. 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 “Kurtz” are as much a death rattle for his race as anything else.