The overriding concern throughout this reboot series of Planet of the Apes, the nagging anxiety that bubbled beneath the surface, was: just how close will we get to the 1968 original? Will these new films, these loose adaptations of Conquest and Battle, segue into the tale of Cornelius, Zira and Zaius? Or will the filmmakers attempt an out-and-out remake, falling prey to the same mistakes perpetrated by Tim Burton 16 years ago?

The overriding sensation when the end credits roll on War for the Planet of the Apes is relief. Relief, because we’re there, on our way to Charlton Heston, and not Mark Wahlberg. Relief, too, because War may be the best of this trilogy; a thoughtful, exciting, unusual blockbuster.

Five years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and, as this title would suggest, a war is being waged. The remains of the US army, called in by the desperate human enclave at the end of the previous film, are hunting ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis, King of Motion Capture). There are shades of Vietnam in the opening scenes, as heavily armed but bewildered human soldiers clash with the more proficient, cunning apes.

After receiving word of a safe haven beyond the reach of the humans, Caesar prepares an ape exodus. But tragedy strikes when, betrayed by one of his own, Caesar’s wife and child are killed by the commander of the human military forces, known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson). Caesar sends his people on their way and sets off on his own, to get his revenge and end the human menace.

Despite the title and the opening salvo, there is actually very little war in War for the Planet of the Apes. After setting off on his own, War morphs into something approaching a Western; Caesar is joined by chimp Rocket, gorilla Luca, and orangutan Maurice, and they ride on horseback over beaches, plains, and the crumbling remains of human civilisation. Later on and War morphs again, this time into a prison break. Then there are the religious, hagiographical overtones (more on those in a bit).

This blending of genres in expensive tentpole releases is often a recipe for disaster, but director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Mark Bomback mix war, western and escape seamlessly. This is a film – and filmmakers – with a supreme confidence in the characters they have created and the story they want to tell. War for the Planet of the Apes surprises by taking its oh so high concept, and the narrative baggage of the previous two installments, and creating a true, old fashioned epic.

Caesar and his comrades soon make their way to the Colonel’s base, with the help of new friend Bad Ape (Steve Zahn, injecting some comic relief, which is much needed after the perpetually po-faced Dawn). Harrelson’s Colonel is a deranged despot, the embodiment of all that Caesar despises in mankind. There is a little of Brando’s Kurtz about the shaven-headed Colonel (indeed, a piece of graffiti around the base reads “Ape-pocalypse Now”); he has gone rogue, splintered off from the dying remnants of the US military. When Caesar arrives at the base, the Colonel is using captured apes to build a wall; it seems that his former masters are on their way, and they’re none too pleased.

The Colonel is one of only two notable human characters in War (the nature of the other, a young girl who joins Caesar on his quest, is best left for the audience to discover), and that is a very wise choice. They may be narratively necessary, but we’re not here for the humans. We’re here for the real stars: the apes. And, of course, the actors and visual effects wizards who bring them to life. It was trumpeted to the heavens when Rise came out, and then again on Dawn’s release, but it bears repeating: Planet of the Apes’ motion capture effects are sublime.

If you thought the apes looked good in Dawn, then you (like I was) will be blown away. Caesar, Maurice, Bad Ape, et al. are all spectacularly photorealistic, with every hair, tooth, glint in an eye, and ruffling of fur utterly convincing. Reeves heightens the effect by shooting his virtual characters as if they are real performers. Which they are. Andy Serkis and his colleagues continue to do amazing, Oscar worthy work here. These are not soulless, technical exercises; they are genuine, emotional performances. If the Academy can’t recognise that, it’s their loss.

Caesar is captured by the Colonel and forced to work with the other apes on the wall. It is here that War for the Planet of the Apes reveals its hand. The apes are slaves, which would make the Colonel Pharaoh, and so Caesar becomes Moses. When Caesar incites the apes to revolt, the Colonel has him tied to a cross, adding Jesus to the mix. This all makes sense; the original Apes cycle talked of the Lawgiver, a semi-mythical religious figure who founded ape civilisation. Is Caesar the Lawgiver, or at least the inspiration for the myth?

To be clear, War does not deal with religious issues. It indulges in a little light hagiography to add import and gravitas to its story, in much the same way as Ben-Hur (hello again, Charlton). Reeves has made an epic in the classical tradition, a tale of larger-than-life characters told against sweeping, snow-covered vistas. The epicness is made more epic by Michael Giacchino’s score, which gets down and dirty when it needs to (staccato horns and tribal drums), but can rise to religious paroxysms (heavenly choir included). Replace the apes with humans, and War’s final shot could be mistaken as one from King of Kings or The Greatest Story Ever Told.

A fourth entry in this current Apes cycle has already been announced, but that feels unnecessary. War can segue neatly into the original Planet of the Apes. It answers the most important questions; those left unanswered wouldn’t make for a compelling film, or are best left to the imagination. What’s more, this is a terrific piece of work, and a wonderful place to leave the series. War for the Planet of the Apes is the kind of big budget spectacle we haven’t seen in years. Bold yet introspective, grand but personal, it may not be the greatest story ever told, but it is the ape-est story ever told.

(I’m so sorry.)

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