(CNN)Those prone to lament the creative trajectory of movie franchises can take heart in "War For the Planet of the Apes" -- a stirring, soulful conclusion to a trilogy that has brilliantly evolved from its original source, claiming the admittedly not-very-competitive crown as the summer's best sequel.
'Planet of the Apes' closes trilogy with rousing 'War'
Reprising his directing role after "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," Matt Reeves (who wrote the script with Mark Bomback) has cleverly synthesized old and new, providing graceful callbacks to the kitsch-y "Apes" films that began in the 1960s while carving out the movie's own rich mythology.
Perhaps foremost, at a time when reliance on computer-generated characters to carry the action often produces mixed results, the chimp leader Caesar (performed and voiced by Andy Serkis) and his posse quickly overcome those obstacles, drawing the audience into a story whose resonance and references extend from internment camps to the biblical.
Picking up not long after the last movie ended, Caesar is leading his community of intelligent apes, hoping to peacefully coexist with the remaining human population. An attack on their forest home by military forces under a renegade leader, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson, at his wild-eyed best), quickly obliterates those plans, prompting Caesar to pursue vengeance, to the chagrin of his more levelheaded orangutan pal Maurice (Karin Konoval).
The apes are eventually captured, moving the film from a war footing to something on the order of "The Great Escape." There is also ample brutality inflicted by the humans toward their simian prisoners, with the saving grace for humanity coming in the form of a young girl (Amiah Miller) who the apes rather grudgingly take in.
Once you get past the somewhat ungainly images of apes brandishing rifles and riding horses, this "Planet of the Apes" works on multiple levels. Indeed, as the first movie did back in 1968 (before giving way, with a few exceptions, to increasingly inferior sequels), "War" functions as sobering commentary in science-fiction form -- presenting a destructive tribal conflict made extraordinary only by the outlandish circumstances that brought the sides into being.
Much has been written about Serkis being under-appreciated as the motion-capture actor supreme, but this is truly a film driven less by special effects than the strength of its characters, due in no small part to the intensity of his performance as a pensive and reluctant warrior.
The entire film, in fact, serves as a splendid demonstration of visual effects being employed in the service of story, as opposed to what frequently feels like the other way around. (Beyond those technical accomplishments, the movie merits special kudos for Michael Giacchino's musical score.)
Although the trilogy format has become a trifle arbitrary in the context of such blockbusters, "War" is one of those rare instances of a movie billed as a "climactic chapter" that actually possesses the feeling and majesty of one, which of course doesn't preclude resetting the table in order to swing into future adventures.
Happily, that's not a groan-inducing prospect. Because unlike most attempts to breathe new life into -- and wring fresh profits out of -- old intellectual property, "War for the Planet of the Apes" not only climbs to new heights in its particularly world but doesn't leave the Earth scorched in terms of where it might go from here.
"War for the Planet of the Apes" premieres in the U.S. on July 14. It's rated PG-13.