While it is easy to become jaded at the current turgid state of mega-budget movies, one offering has stood out for some time now as a beacon in the haze of mediocre franchises and focus group-produced blockbusters.
The rebooted Planet of the Apes canon does not draw its acclaim from the relative inadequacies of rivals. No, its greatness is inherent and since film one – Rupert Wyatt's tremendous Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – first hit screens in 2011, there have been few to match a series that has grown stronger with each new instalment.
Similarly, the arrival three years later of the Matt Reeves-directed follow-up, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, garnered critical praise and audience devotion, its bold themes of family, peace and human frailty, not to mention some truly spectacular action, setting it apart from competitors.
In returning with the third chapter, War for the Planet of the Apes, Reeves ratchets up proceedings to deliver a bold and brilliantly imagined sci-fi epic that builds on the foundations already laid. Anchored by more than one stellar performance, War completes the not insignificant task of outdoing its accomplished predecessors.
Andy Serkis's ability to inhabit and guide digital beings stopped being a gimmick back around the time Gollum started speaking to himself but as Caesar, the hyper intelligent (now almost completely fluent) and totemic chimpanzee at the centre of the entire trilogy, the actor betters any of his previous work. Caesar is no mere expensive avatar born in the Weta hive mind. He is, rather, a fully evolved protagonist, photoreal and blessed by Serkis with depths and motivations absent in many a flesh-and-blood character.
His is the crucial tale, commencing as a platoon of hardened human warriors glide through a serene rainforest to attack the apes' arboreal hideout, their commander (Woody Harrelson) directing them from afar in humankind's desperate efforts to blot out their nemeses following the dystopian conflict set off at the end of Rise.
Later, as Harrelson himself comes calling, bearing only 'The Colonel' as a handle, Caesar's fate spirals and, haunted by visions of dead friend Koba (Toby Kebbell), the raged-filled bonobo he put to the sword as film two concluded, he sets off on a path apart from that of the primates he leads.
From a technical standpoint, War is an astonishing feat. If Reeves prefers not to revel in the brilliance of his picture, its merits are no less obvious. This is a story revolving around a group of CG apes that never once seems as if it is riffing on the wizardry required to bring such a cast to life. It is no stretch to conclude that these look and move like the real thing, with every single detail, from their matted, sodden and snow-sprinkled fur to their squat and shuffling movements, rendered in agonising detail. Sorrow, fear and contentment inhabit their eyes. It is truly stunning work.
For all of the above prowess, however, War is defined, like any other film, by the quality of its characters and how they interact with one another. In this regard, it soars. Serkis's magnificent turn aside, there are other achievements to savour. Karin Konoval has always imbued orangutan Maurice with a gentle sagacity but the relationships here with both Caesar and war orphan Nova (Amiah Miller) feels especially poignant. For her part, Miller is outstanding, an ethereal young mute representing a crucial strand in Apes's larger universe.
Steve Zahn, too, pops up as Bad Ape, the sweetly innocent (not to mention welcome) comic relief. Even Red (Ty Olsson), a former follower of Koba and now a collaborating enforcer for the bellicose homo sapiens (a 'Donkey', to use the term awarded to all such quislings), is rewarded with a poignant arc.
This modern series continues the anthological approach to its humans that has seen a changing line-up of antagonists and protagonists intersect the apes' evolution (think Jason Clarke, James Franco and Gary Oldman). Harrelson is undoubtedly the most dastardly, though his development is handled with deftness. Messiah-cum-warlord in the early stages, he glares and glowers, and channels Brando's Kurtz more than once (not the only Apocalypse Now reference). That said, his denouement is, surprisingly, the strongest indicator yet as to how this narrative fits into that made famous by Charlton Heston and the Simian Flu – the pandemic at the crux of the present Apes mythos – hangs in the air, cleverly brought forward as its own villain.
When a middle section located in Harrelson's hellish, frozen prison camp begins to drag, Reeves pitches up with an escape sequence that will amuse and compel in equal measures. Just as well judged is the director's decision to row back so deliberately from the kind of loud extended set piece that worked so well in Rise's final reel. Yes, there is devastation aplenty, much of it brutal, but instead of going for spectacle, War's aim is something much more delicate.
"Apes together: Strong," goes Caesar's double-fisted mantra. It seems terribly hard to argue.