Forget your usual blockbuster fare like cities getting flattened or aliens punching each other, the greatest special effect in War for the Planet of the Apes is a close-up of a chimp’s face. The collaboration between Andy Serkis and the digital artists that create Caesar is still miraculous, and watching him silently grapple with a decision is just as compelling as any super-powered slug-fest, if not more so.
This third instalment certainly holds itself like a war film, starting with a Dirty Dozen-style apes-on-a-mission story before turning into something more like The Great Escape. As per the genre, the tone is grave, even more so than last time.
It also features the first real bad guy in these films. Woody Harrelson’s Colonel is thoroughly unhinged but, as per this thoughtful franchise, he’s still given plenty of nuance. Comic relief is provided by another new character, an estranged Zoo chimp called Bad Ape. Played by Steve Zahn, he’s instantly adorable, then increasingly annoying.
The movie is blunt with its politics – enslaved apes are whipped as The Star Spangled Banner plays, and the finale sees an American flag literally go up in flames. Meanwhile War for the Planet of the Apes keeps upending expectations, ending with a series of rug-pulls and a pleasant whiff of subversion. It’s a fantastic finish to a brainy trilogy that favours moral dilemmas over explosions, but finds room for a few of those too.