The new movie starts two years into the ultimate battle between apes and humans. A platoon of human soldiers is advancing uphill toward an ape settlement. But the ape troops are ready and annihilate the humans — except for four men, who stand face to face with the ape leader Caesar (performed by Andy Serkis), whose legend is known in both ape and human armies. Caesar sends the four back, alive, with a message for their commander: Leave the woods to the apes, and there will be peace.
The human commander is known to most as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), and peace isn't in his plans. He leads a commando attack on the hidden ape colony, intent on assassinating Caesar. The ape leader survives, but the damage done leaves him wanting revenge.
Caesar orders his people, including his young son Cornelius, to seek an escape east, through the desert, while he plans to go alone to The Colonel's headquarters. Three of Caesar's loyal lieutenants — the orangutan Maurice (performed by Karin Konoval), big gorilla Luca (performed by Michael Adamthwaite) and tough chimp Rocket (performed by Terry Notary) — join him on the journey.
Along the way, the group picks up two refugees. One is a former zoo chimp (performed by Steve Zahn) abused by his handlers, from whom he learned to say his name: "Bad Ape." The other is a human girl (Amiah Miller) who has suffered a mutated version of Simian Flu that leaves its victims unable to talk. (The girl eventually is given a name, one familiar to fans of the original 1968 movie.)
When Caesar gets to The Colonel's camp, he makes a horrific discovery: His followers, including Cornelius, have been captured and enslaved.
Director Matt Reeves (who made "Rise") and his writing partner Mark Bomback lift a bit from the "Planet of the Apes" canon, but also from classic storytelling (most notably the book of Exodus). The script sets up a battle of wills between two leaders, Caesar and The Colonel, each believing that killing the other is the only way to ensure the survival of his species.
Reeves stages some of the most nail-biting action sequences of the summer, from the laser-lit darkness of The Colonel's commando raid to the intense final showdown between Caesar's crew and the human forces. The action is augmented by the ape effects created by Weta Digital, which are as sublime and natural as anything the human characters are doing.
Of course, much of the credit for the realism of the apes goes to the actors in performance-capture suits giving them life. Serkis, who played Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" films, is the undisputed master of this form of acting, and again gives Caesar a wealth of emotions, from righteous anger to a deep weariness from the many battles thrust upon him.
Here's how you know the combined efforts of the performance-capture actors and Weta's wizardry are working: You find yourself rooting for the apes and against the humans. That's how lifelike the apes are here, and how effective "War for the Planet of the Apes" is at making us empathize with their plight.