WE’RE in the middle of the summer block-buster wilderness that has included strong contenders such as Wonder Woman and last week’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. But with this, the third film in the rebooted simian franchise, we have found what may end up being the summer’s crowning glory.

This hugely entertaining, visually astonishing and thematically and emotionally rich continuation of the saga catches up with heroic but flawed and vulnerable Caesar (Andy Serkis), now unquestionably the leader of the apes, doing his best to survive and protect his kind.

However, one day his side suffers devastating losses during an attack by the humans, led by the ruthless and formidable Colonel McCullough (a menacing Woody Harrelson).

This causes Caesar to un-cage his darker instincts, embarking on a quest for personal vengeance he once saw in Koba (Toby Kebbell), the friend-turned-foe ape seen in the previous film. This mission of vengeance leads Caesar and the Colonel to come face to face in a battle of strength and will to survive what threatens both sides and the very fate of the planet itself.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this furthering of the story is how it’s mostly told from the perspective of the apes. It’s an approach that’s at once bold and also camouflaged as an unquestioned, natural progression. It also provides a fascinating dynamic for viewers in that we’re led to rooting for the apes over the humans – despite the triumph of the former essentially meaning the destruction of the latter.

The jaw-dropping visuals by Weta – responsible for a lot of modern cinema’s ground-breaking visual effects, from Lord of the Rings to last year’s The Jungle Book and beyond – the attention to character detail and the subtly affecting motion capture performances by Serkis and others combine to make these creatures feel heartbreakingly human. By the time Caesar and the Colonel come to a stand-off, they’re both as real as each other.

Returning director and co-writer Matt Reeves once again showcases his ability to create some truly thrilling and visually arresting action, the kind of grand and operatic set-pieces you just don’t see that often. Many of them take place in harsh and uncompromising locations, such as the army site that uncomfortably doubles as a concentration camp where apes are herded together and worked to the bone lest they be whipped or threatened with execution.

It’s a dark and brooding film with serious things to say about morality and the sheer will to survive underneath the mightily entertaining bombast. There is genuinely much at stake, both world-affecting deeply personal, which are so infused you feel like it really means something – as exemplified in the affecting score by Michael Giacchino.

But it’s also one that sees the light at the end of the tunnel, a kind of hopeful potential for triumph and salvation that gets you ever more invested in the drama. It’s also not above cracking jokes: Steve Zahn steals whatever scene he’s in as new addition Bad Ape, a smaller primate with comically childlike reactions to what goes on around him.

The show-stopper of a summer blockbuster proves that this kind of popcorn fare can run the gamut of feelings, wrestle with big ideas and present a truly cinematic vision that’s roundly rewarding as it both builds on what came before and adds new, complex layers. Apes … together… strong, indeed.