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D: Matt Reeves / 140m

Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Toby Kebbell, Gabriel Chavarria, Judy Greer

With so many franchise trilogies out there at the moment, and with so many of them failing to maintain a consistent level of quality across all three movies, what are the odds that a series based on a previous five-movie saga – which went from genre classic to tired afterthought – would prove to be the trilogy that bucked the trend and have the most impact? For such is the case thanks to War for the Planet of the Apes, the final entry in a trilogy that has been consistently impressive from start to finish, and which has raised the bar significantly in terms of motion capture performances.

The success of the series can be attributed to the seriousness, and the sense of purpose with which each entry has been approached. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) introduced us to a world where the potential of apes superseding humans was a tantalising prospect. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) took us deeper into that world and showed how intolerance and distrust on both sides could be exploited by personal agendas. And in War for the Planet of the Apes we see the inevitable consequences that arise from attempting to avoid a future that has been predestined ever since Will Rodman created ALZ 112. The whole trilogy has been a triumph of storytelling and characterisation, and thanks to the efforts of everyone involved, has ended on such a high note that if Chernin Entertainment and 20th Century Fox do decide to continue the saga (as seems to be the plan) then they will have a massive job on their hands to equal or improve upon what’s gone before.

Since the events of Dawn… Caesar (Serkis) and his tribe have retreated further into California’s Muir Woods, but their hope for a peaceful, undisturbed existence is short-lived. A paramilitary group called Alpha-Omega has tracked them down. The group launches an attack on the apes’ home, but are repelled. Caesar spares the lives of four men, and tells them to report back to their leader, Colonel McCullough (Harrelson), that he hasn’t started this war, and he just wants his tribe to be left alone. Later, the soldiers return at night, and this time the apes suffer greater casualties than before. Caesar, determined to put an end to these endless skirmishes once and for all, decides to find the colonel and kill him. He intends to go alone, but his chief advisor, orang-utan Maurice (Konoval), gorilla Luca (Adamthwaite), and chimpanzee Rocket (Notary), all follow after him. Caesar allows them to accompany him, and while the rest of the tribe journey in search of a new home, the quartet travel to the “border” where the colonel has his base. Along the way, they encounter the daughter of a soldier, Nova (Miller), who cannot speak; Maurice insists that she continue on with them. Further on they meet Bad Ape (Zahn), a chimpanzee who helps them locate McCullough’s compound.

By this stage of the movie, many viewers may feel that they know what will happen next, and how, but one of the strengths of Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves’ script is its willingness to take the material into much darker territory than anyone might expect. To this end, Caesar undergoes both a crisis of faith and an apotheosis, and the moral certainties and imperatives that govern the actions and motives of both Caesar and McCullough are thrown into sharp relief by the similarities they exhibit. Although nominally the movie’s villain, and despite his resemblance to Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now (1979), McCullough isn’t the cut-and-dried bad guy that he first appears to be. Driven by the same fears of species annihilation that occupy Caesar, McCullough has glimpsed humanity’s future and the sight has scared him badly. Operating out of fear and a desperate sense of protectionism, the colonel behaves in ways that are both understandable and reprehensible, and it’s this dichotomy that makes the character such a good adversary for Caesar.

For his part, Caesar is still trying to deal with the ramifications of his killing Koba (Kebbell), and what that might imply in terms of his ability to lead his tribe. This element of self-doubt, itself riffing off the precept that “ape shall not kill ape”, adds further depth to a character who has always challenged the assumption that the apes’ fate is pre-determined. As time has gone by and his goal of peaceful assimilation has been repeatedly derailed by human intransigence, Caesar has become all too aware that mutual annihilation may be the eventual outcome of the apes’ struggle with their human counterparts. He knows that killing McCullough is necessary but finds that it’s not as simple as he thought it would be, partly because of the nature of the colonel’s compound (where apes are used as slave labour), and partly because he can’t fully excuse some of his own behaviour (which he sees reflected in McCullough’s actions).

The movie also deals with issues of social exclusion, both ape and human, and has a political edge that adds further realism to what is essentially a fantasy-based parable of human folly on a grand scale. There are succinct parallels to modern-day events happening in the real world that make it seem as if Bomback and Reeves have a prophetic ability that the movie can capitalise on, while for those who want to explore the idea, there’s the possibility that the apes represent another tribe searching for a place to settle in peace. All this aside, War… is further strengthened by a tremendous central performance by Serkis as Caesar. It’s been mentioned elsewhere, but Serkis’s performance is so powerful and so emotionally layered that if he’s not nominated for any acting trophies come awards season, then maybe a boycott is in order. Without Serkis, there’s little doubt that the trilogy would not have been as impressive and as compelling as it is. We’ve watched the character evolve over the course of three increasingly remarkable movies, and Serkis’s equally remarkable achievement deserves appropriate recognition.

Rating: 9/10 – a superb example of how to end a trilogy by not deviating from the path originally set out in the first movie, and by not sanitising it in any way, War for the Planet of the Apes is intelligent, emotive and complex movie making that wears its confidence on its sleeve as a badge of merit; featuring breathtaking cinematography by Michael Seresin (who was for a long time the go-to DoP for Alan Parker), expertly choreographed action sequences, clever references to the original Planet of the Apes movies, and by turns, a charged, stirring and poignant score courtesy of Michael Giacchino, this is easily one of the best movies of 2017 – paws down.