In this day and age of franchise-driven, corporate filmmaking, the Planet of the Apes trilogy, like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy before it, stands out like a sore thumb, an exception to the rule if you will, an example of what happens when studio bean counters stand to one side and let their creators strut their stuff. Not only are all three films —Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2001) directed by Rupert Wyatt, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and War for the Planet of the Apes directed by Matt Reeves— consistent in tone but they also serve as prequels to the original Rod Serling-written/Franklin J. Schaffner-directed 1968 adaptation of the Pierre Boulle novel Planet of the Apes. And just like Christopher Nolan’s trilogy helped wipe out from our collective memory Joel Schumacher’s ridiculously campy and obscenely loud Batman & Robin (a.k.a. the Bat Nipple film) so does this trilogy help send Tim Burton’s 2001 adaptation of the novel back to oblivion where it belongs.

The title of this third entry in the series actually has two meanings for it refers not only to its simian protagonists but also to their human counterparts who used and abused them. It’s a war of dominance and survival, a war driven by fear and a false sense of superiority on the one side and for the right to live peacefully on the other. It’s also a war between members of the same species, between reactionaries and the rest of what’s left of mankind. War for the Planet of the Apes picks up where its previous chapter left off: with Caesar and his tribe pursued by the forces of a species nearly wiped out by a virus of their own making. The former acts of former ally and human hater Koba that led to this conflict weigh heavily on Caesar’s (Andy Serkis) shoulders. As the film opens a group of soldiers with slogans like “Monkey Killer” and “Bedtime for Bonzo” scrawled on their helmets and uniforms are led by Koba’s allies (including a gorilla with the word “donkey” painted on his back) to Caesar’s encampment and attack. They are forcefully pushed back and defeated by Caesar’s forces. The fighting is brutal and exhilarating.

In an act of mercy and as a message to the humans, Caesar sends the surviving soldiers back to their platoon. But their Colonel (Woody Harrelson deliberately evoking Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now), a determined, ruthless warrior who believes he is fighting a holy war on behalf of humanity, will have none of it and that evening returns to the encampment in full camouflage as head of a commando force to kill Caesar and ends up killing the wrong target, one dear to Caesar’s heart. Vowing revenge, Caesar sends the rest of the tribe to march off to their new home while he takes after the Colonel and his troops.

Accompanied by his trusted right hand orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), his second in command Rocket (Terry Notary, who played Kong in Kong: Skull Island the other ape movie to reference Apocalypse Now this year), and gorilla bodyguard Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), Caesar, like Willard before him, journeys into his own heart of darkness. It’s a journey where he not only wrestles with his own emotions and ethical choices, but that also exposes him and his traveling companions to the worst of mankind as they discover that the Colonel’s men are executing their equals for carrying a mutated version of the virus that leaves them mute. It’s a sight that goes against his core beliefs: of unity, of “ape together strong” no matter how diverse their species (or precisely, because they are diverse). They are joined in this journey by Nova (Amiah Miller), a young girl they rescue from an abandoned human encampment, and Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), the only other ape able to speak. What they find at the end of their journey is heartbreaking as they discover their brethren enslaved by mankind, forced to do their bidding without food or water.

This third act defies what we expect from a summer tentpole film. For while there is a confrontation between Caesar and his human nemesis, it’s one that is both cerebral and physical, one that takes into consideration both characters’ points of view, forcing audiences to question their own allegiances. And while the cruelty against these apes makes us root for them and for the humans to get their comeuppance, the climactic battle is not among the factions you expected and its aftermath is terribly ironic. The film’s final shot offers a fitting, moving finale to Caesar’s journey.

War for the Planet of the Apes is that rare film where every single element is in sync with each other, from Michael Giacchino’s almost primal score —one of his best compositions yet— to Michael Seresin’s moist, pristine, sharp cinematography (the shots of the beach, as Caesar and his small group slowly ride on horseback across it, with the sunlight hitting and reflecting on the pools of water left by the tides, have an elegiac feel) and the acting. The integration of the digital effects to the natural settings is seamless to the point where you no longer question what’s real and what’s not. Everything feels real, IS real. Yet, like any true filmmaker, Reeves also understands the power of a good close-up in telling a story; he pays as much attention to his character’s faces as he does the sweeping landscapes and battle scenes.

Serkis’ performance is once again superb, endowing Caesar’s character with a sense of pathos, weariness, rage. His face conveys Caesar’s struggles with his own demons, his slow realization that he is as human as Nova or the Colonel with such conviction that you can’t tell apart the actor from the digital creation. They are one and the same. Karin Konoval’s performance as Maurice is equally noteworthy, her eyes communicating compassion, empathy, an inner force, a character at peace with himself and the world. She makes Maurice the film’s moral center. And then there is Woody Harrelson whose character, in other hands, would have led to major scene chewing; but in his hands, he comes across as coldly rational, determinedly single-minded in his fanaticism and species-ism.

Reeves wears his cinephilia on his sleeve, not only acknowledging Coppola’s classic Vietnam war film but also Anthony Mann’s classic westerns and such epic WWII films as The Great Escape. But for all its film references, War for the Planet of the Apes is never derivative. Reeves has delivered a robust, thinking man’s blockbuster, one that delivers its thrills with a side order of ideas. It’s a film that in its own unique way deals with the perils of sectarianism and what happens when one species (or nationality) embraces (or fails to embrace) diversity and its corollaries: equality, solidarity and unity. It’s a smart film and one of the year’s best.

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