“WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES” — 3½ stars — Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller; PG-13 (sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements and some disturbing images); in general release

We’ve come a long way from Charlton Heston screaming on a beach. The third installment of the “Planet of the Apes” prequel trilogy, director Matt Reeves’ “War for the Planet of the Apes,” has arrived to show us how, in Heston’s 1968 words, the maniacs “blew it all up!”

Where 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” showed where the monkeys got their advanced intelligence, and 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” showcased the first conflicts between two warring societies, “War” picks up the story 15 years down the line, as the human race, decimated by disease, is on the verge of collapse.

The first two films showed a surprising, effective blend of expected sci-fi and unexpected drama, and “War” holds the line, even ramping up the intensity.

This time around, the audience sees the film almost exclusively from the perspective of the ape leader Caesar (a motion-captured Andy Serkis) and his followers. They are still centered in the redwoods north of California’s Bay Area, fighting off the fledgling remnants of the American military.

When Caesar returns several human prisoners unharmed after an early assault, he hopes that the army will understand his nonaggressive position, but soon after, a human colonel (Woody Harrelson) infiltrates the ape camp and kills Caesar’s wife and son.

The colonel may seem like he’s the tip of the military sword, but Caesar soon learns otherwise. It turns out that the disease that has been wiping out the human population — sprung from the serum that granted Caesar and company their advanced intelligence — is having an unexpected effect on the surviving humans. It’s turning them into mute savages, and the colonel’s extreme response to this development has turned the rest of the military against him and his now rogue band.

This would seem to suggest Caesar has an additional ally against the colonel, but in this case, the enemy of his enemy is not his friend. Peaceful gestures aren’t going to do much to convince a dying human race that Caesar and company should be left alone.

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So Caesar is essentially on his own against the colonel, who may as well have been named Kurtz, since Harrelson is doing everything he can to channel the insane, philosophizing, bald-headed lunatic Marlon Brando immortalized in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam epic “Apocalypse Now.” At one point, we even see the words “Ape-Pocalypse Now!” scribbled in graffiti on a wall.

It takes a while to get there — the second act gets a little bogged down — but the Caesar vs. the colonel vs. the rest of the military dynamic eventually leads to a spectacular third act payoff that should rank among the summer’s most entertaining action set pieces.

As outstanding as the finale looks, what makes “War” so effective is its blend of effects with a compelling, dramatic story. The new “Planet of the Apes” trilogy may be a prequel series to Heston’s original, but it has replaced the subtle camp of those first movies with a surprisingly effective emotional tone. It may feel a little strange cheering for the apes against the humans — at least the crazy bald ones played by Woody Harrelson — but “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a classic example of how a little zany but well-made science fiction can offer more to the audience than a few special effects.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements and some disturbing images; running time: 140 minutes.

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