If it weren't for the machine-gun-wielding monkey astride a steed in the opening scene, you'd be mistaken for thinking the third film in the Planet of the Apes prequel franchise was a war drama inspired by Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line. The scene is a gruellingly tense blueprint for what's to come: a riveting, near-faultless entry to 2017's blockbuster canon that packs enough heft to satisfy your film-watching needs for the remainder of the year.
The tense tracking shots interspersed with static point-of-view sets the scene more than any line of dialogue could - it's two years on from events of 2014 film Dawn and the battle between humans and apes, fuelled by the traitorous Koba (Toby Kebbell), has rendered the world a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Primate protagonist Caesar (an extraordinary Andy Serkis) is intent on protecting his species with as little bloodshed possible. "I didn't start this war," the grizzled warrior, a far cry from the young chimp we met in 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, tells the soldiers baying for his species' blood before an encounter with Woody Harrelson's Colonel McCullough propels him on his own destructive journey.
Under the guidance of director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), the film unfurls at its own pace from the first second, uninterested in dancing to anybody's tune but its own - rare for a film of this stature. Sharing a writing credit with Mark Bomback, Reeves oversees the two hours 20-minute film with assured precision, wasting zero shots in the process.
His insistence on undercutting tropes commonly associated with blockbusters rings large - this is a film with no patience for the headache-inducing editing on offer in recent franchise money-spinners involving superheroes, car chases and robots in disguise. Instead, Reeves is far more interested in capturing a character's attempt to escape an oncoming danger as, say, the explosive money shot the studio would have likely insisted on him favouring. In shunning the grandiose, this film reaps dividends. Consider excitement levels for his upcoming Batman film raised.
The rebooted Apes franchise has never been concerned with spelling out whose side the audience should fall down on, but the hints are there to take. "Monkey killer" can be seen scrawled on a nondescript soldier's helmet. "There's no good Kong except a dead Kong," reads one mantra, while another - "Ape-ocalypse Now" - hammers home one of the film's obvious inspirations if Harrelson's despot Colonel hadn't already.
It's the subtle expansion of the world that makes War for the Planet of the Apes feel a cut above the rest (disused railway tracks and abandoned Coca-Cola lorries alert us to the fact we're still quite a way away from Charlton Heston's future experiences). Its old-school sensibility means events rarely stray from Caesar, orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Steve Zahn's new addition Bad Ape whose gawky chimp provides a necessary reprieve to the gloom. Every extraneous character - apart from a soldier in scene one - remains faceless, the film remaining anchored to the small-scale story it's telling.
Despite the motion-capture apes, War for the Planet of the Apes feels more an episode of a high-quality drama than the best blockbuster sequel in recent memory - not to mention the best monkey film of the year (not that the messy Kong: Skull Island posed much competition). Dunkirk permitting, it could be the best war one too. Call off the search - the summer's first show-stopper is here.
War for the Planet of the Apes is released 11 July
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