THE Planet Of The Apes movies, rebooted from the 1960s and 1970s, have never grabbed as much attention as other franchises: the Marvels, Star Wars, Star Treks and the like. But if the Apes team stopped now, it would be with

a perfectly realised film trilogy.

From Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes in 2011, through Dawn in 2014 to this conclusion of ape leader Caesar’s story, every aspect of the films – story, direction, cinematography, special effects – has got progressively more impressive. Given their central premise, talking apes, these could have easily fallen into the same cheesy quagmire as the originals; instead they’re incredibly serious, and all the better for it.

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Another factor in the trilogy’s success has been the uncanny performance by Andy Serkis. The master of performance-capture acting, in which every movement and gesture is recorded and transferred to an animated character, the Brit has shown the progression of Caesar’s life from young monkey to rebel leader to king, child to father, a pacifist who now becomes consumed by rage, in a portrayal that wouldn’t be any better were it presented in flesh and blood.

Writer/director Matt Reeves opens with a mesmerising sequence, explicatory credits (virus = good for apes, bad for humans) playing out over a milky, out-of-focus image that, when it sharpens, reveals a group of soldiers moving through the forest. They are accompanied by a handful of guerrillas, who seem to be doubling as guides and pack animals. Anyone new to these films would find this utterly persuasive image of men and apes together astonishing.

Within minutes comes a spectacular and devastating forest battle. With this, and the next attack on the ape camp, Reeves quickly establishes his themes and dynamic. Caesar and his intelligent apes are still trying to live peaceably in the forest as humans try to exterminate them, this time in the form of an army led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson).

Such is the fear engendered by this new enemy that some apes are betraying Caesar, only to have sold themselves into slavery. A soldier has “monkey killer” scrawled on his helmet, an ape has “donkey” scrawled on its back, the Colonel constantly refers to the collective apes as Kong – a pejorative with echoes of the Viet Cong. The humans’ actions are soaked in race hatred.

Harrelson plays the Colonel as a Kurtz figure, a charismatic leader gone rogue, with a seriously dangerous god complex. As well as the attempted genocide of the apes, he’s prepared to kill any humans still being affected by the virus. But the motor of the film lies with Caesar himself, as one attack too close to home leaves the ape unhinged, his usually calm leadership usurped by the desire for revenge.

As with the last outing, Reeves adeptly fuses action and drama. There’s also a sense of the epic here, as Caesar leads a small band across a barren landscape in search of the Colonel, while the larger conflict hangs in the air around them. In keeping with such journeys, new characters join en route, including a mute girl and another talking ape, a sad but entertaining little thing who calls himself Bad Ape and is the closest (thankfully) that these films have come to being cute.

The plotting could be a little tighter, but the title’s threat of an all-out war film is happily unrealised. Overall, Reeves has produced a magisterial action sci-fi, which takes its animated figures into real locations – especially snow-covered landscapes – with breathtaking authenticity, and gives their refugee story a startlingly relevant pathos.

Also released

The Beguiled (15)

During the American Civil War, an injured Union soldier (Colin Farrell) who has deserted in Virginia finds sanctuary in a boarding school for girls, whose matriarch (Nicole Kidman) tends his wounds. As the charming Irishman shares his gratitude a little too freely with the older women, sexual tension and jealousy threaten his new-found idyll. Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of a Clint Eastwood vehicle from the 1970s is a disappointment. While smoothing over the lurid qualities of the original, Coppola has made something that’s pretty, polite and rather bland.

David Lynch: The Art Life (15)

A documentary about the director of such famously weird classics as Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive. The film observes Lynch as he creates artworks in his Hollywood studio, while his voiceover talks through his childhood in small-town America and early years as a painter in Philadelphia, leading to his breakout film Eraserhead. While the story ends there, his recollections richly evoke the experiences and imagination that inform a whole career.