Some 15 years have elapsed since the biotech advances of Rise of the Planet of the Apes accelerated primate evolution while simultaneously wiping out most of humanity. Inter-species conflict rages on, despite the best efforts of Caesar (Andy Serkis), who has led his family and hundreds of apes to a waterfall-masked stockade.
A battalion of Homo sapiens sporting murderous slogans – “Monkey Killer”, “Bedtime for Bonzo” – stalk the apes, aided by simian collaborators; for their efforts these crow scouts are pejoratively graffitied with the word “Donkey”. The ruthless soldiers are under the command of Colonel McCullough (Harrelson), a rogue commander with genocidal thoughts and a cult following.
After a brutal altercation, Caesar and his inner circle – including orangutan fan favourite Maurice (Karin Konoval), kindly gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), and cunning chimp Rocket (Terry Notary) – leave the tribe and venture northwards, in search of this human nemesis.
With three perfectly formed adventures now coalescing into a pleasingly shaped trilogy, the contemporary Apes sequence has delivered more consistently than any other Hollywood franchise. Despite shared primate DNA, the films bear little resemblance to their groovy late-1960s/early-1970s predecessors, nor to Tim Burton's unlovely 2001 reboot.
Where that film played kitsch peek-a-boo games from under layers of prosthetic make-up, the current incarnation has evolved symbiotically with performance-capture technology. Serkis, having played Gollum as long ago as 2001, is the medium’s most distinguished and accomplished veteran, but his co-stars, especially the sublime Konoval, deserve equal billing.
As recently as Rise of the Planets of the Apes (2011), Serkis' artistry looked like a perfect marriage of man and machinery. Six years on, and more than a decade into Oscar-for-Serkis debates, and his Caesar looks like a monkey to back when awards season comes. Watching the actor and his gifted colleagues, you forget you're watching special effects or bells and whistles from Weta Digital.
Forget the uncanny valley: these are characters. They are also animals, and when they are slain, there’s a ghastly novelty to it, one that has long ago worn off the spectacle of dying humans.
Following on from Kong: Skull Island and The Jungle Book, War for the Planet of the Apes ostentatiously genuflects before Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. In case you miss the gone-native colonel and the helicopters, the words "Ape-pocalypse Now" are helpfully daubed on a subterranean passageway.
The film similarly parrots John Ford's The Searchers with its cycle of destructive vengeance and with new simian addition, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a Shakespearean fool and a ringer for Mose Harper. A young human girl (Amiah Miller), displaying the latest symptoms of the mutating Simian Flu, completes the white-hat posse.
The nods keep coming. Working on large-format, high-definition stock director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) and cinematographer Michael Seresin fashion grand horizons that would surely meet with Akira Kurosawa or David Lean's approval. (Reeves has, indeed, cited the importance of Hidden Fortress and Ran on the overall aesthetic).
There is, too, a pronounced Trumpian subtext in McCullough’s unholy and unhinged beliefs, an anachronistic manifesto of Christianity, patriotism, speciesism, anarchy and paranoia.
“Why does he need a wall?” wonders Caesar and his allies, as the colonel shores up defences around a complex characterised by suspicious mottos (“Keep Fear to Yourself, Share Courage With Others”). Because science fiction is always a helpful, terrifying guide to the present.