(Matt Reeves, 2014)
The real glory of this film lies in the way director Reeves tells his story. Good cinematic storytelling is becoming something of a rarity in blockbuster cinema. But he puts together a series of beautiful visuals that flow together to tell this story with economy, power and wit.
The film picks up ten years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes; the human race is almost extinct, civilization more or less vanished. Caesar (Andy Serkis), the super-intelligent chimp who led a group of apes into the woods near San Francisco at the climax of the first film, is now leader of a settlement in that forest. The apes communicate using sign language and some speech, live in tree houses and ride horses. They teach one another rules and hunt deer with spears. Caesar's allies from his escape are now his most trusted advisors- gentle Orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), angry Koba (Toby Kebell) and loyal Rocket, alongside Caesar's son Blue Eyes. The apes have seen no humans for two years.
But they soon encounter a group of humans in their territory, there to repair a dam so power can be restored to their home, a tower in the city.
This group is led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), and he, like Caesar, is intent on protecting his family, which includes a son (Cody Smit-McPhee) and new wife (Keri Russell, largely wasted). The initial encounter goes badly, setting the tone for all to come. While Koba - scarred by years of experiments in human labs - preaches that the apes should attack the humans, Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman), who set up the colony with Malcolm, counsels much the same to his group.
From that point in, what Reeves shapes is a slow-motion tragedy, as the minority hawks on each side drive their species into a bloody, destructive war that Malcolm and Caesar are powerless to stop, hard as they try, and much as their own friendship suggests there may be another way. The details are perfectly observed; the way Koba clowns as a stage chimpanzee to gain human trust, the way Maurice and Malcolm's son bond over a graphic novel (Charles Burns' Black Sun), the brief human euphoria at the return of power, Blue Eyes and his adolescent rebellion, even the way the city is already an overgrown mossy jungle.
Most of all though Reeves conjures up a sense of wonder and alien fear - the ape society is so well-evoked and detailed in the first act, that it is a little coup how strange and otherworldly it (and its denizens) becomes when the humans see it. These two sides fear one another, but they are curious too.
The inevitable violence is thrillingly shot, and as he did in Let Me In, Reeves indulges himself with an impressive single-take shot of Koba atop a tank progressing across the battleground. But it all works so well because here Reeves has established these characters - both ape and human - so convincingly, and made us care about them. The emotional connection we feel pays off in the climactic scenes, which are tragic and weighted with sorrow and regret.
The effects are - obviously - superb.