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Several years after the Simian Flu eradicated much of Earth’s population, some remaining humans are still battling genetically enhanced primates. Chimp commander Caesar (Andy Serkis) is still haunted by the betrayal of barbaric Koba, but is also trying to minimize violence against the humans. However, when a ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson) leads a battalion into the apes’ habitat – where they murder Caesar’s wife and son – the chimp decides to track down the killers. Marching through the empty wilderness with ape allies, including the wise Maurice (Karin Konoval), Caesar must deal with his urges to descend into violence.

The third (and likely final) film in the Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy is grim, tense, and emotionally thrilling. In his second outing for this series, director Matt Reeves (also a co-writer) has a command over image and tone. An opening clash between monkeys and men is rendered memorably through the limited perspectives of the human soldiers. (It climaxes with haunting shots of a soldier gasping for life as arrows rain down around him, and leads into an homage of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory.) The thriller’s colour palette is also restrained, often relying on coarse blacks and cloudy greys. The contrast between the arid landscape and the expressive, technically accomplished apes’ faces emboldens the impact of both.

One stimulating aspect of this big-budget spectacle is its relative lack of bombast. The narrative is concise and stripped-down, and does not pack action sequences into the plot for the sake of excitement. Still, War for the Planet of the Apes is unwaveringly intense, especially during the first half, when it follows Caesar and a small clan of monkeys around snowy settings as they track down human predators and search for supplies. Meanwhile, Michael Giacchino’s score, punctuated by minor keys, rouses and unsettles in equal measure. (Even during the few major action sequences, Reeves is confident enough to cut out the sound mix and let Giacchino’s music take over.)

The dark atmosphere does not become oppressive, though. The discovery of lonesome chimp Bad Ape (voiced by Steve Zahn) provides some comic relief. Furthermore, the apes encounter an orphaned girl they name Nova (Amiah Miller, holding her own acting against motion-capture effects). Her presence leads to a couple of warm bonding moments between mammal and human.

Still, War for the Planet of the Apes doesn’t quite surpass its predecessor, a film that I have written about in detail for TFS. As in that film, some of the human dialogue feels tinny. An extended sequence involving the Colonel is meaty with heavy-handed exposition. (Harrelson does a fine job, nevertheless.) Meanwhile, the final half-hour is anticlimactic, unable to live up to the expertly paced simmering action from the first two thirds. The final action sequences also rely too often on coincidence and dumb human logic, preventing a truly spectacular showdown of strength and wits. Yet, it is welcome that a third entry in a blockbuster franchise does not revert to table-setting other installments.

Is War for the Planet of the Apes Essential Viewing?

Yes. War for the Planet of the Apes is a satisfying close to a surprisingly resonant trilogy of films. You can officially begin your awards campaign to nominate Andy Serkis for his breathtaking work in a motion-capture suit.

War for the Planet of the Apes opens Friday, July 14, 2017 at Cineplex locations. Check their website for more information.

War for the Planet of the Apes Trailer