AS A REBOOT of a moribund series that was never all that reliable to begin with (exactly two of the five original Planet of the Apes movies are what one could call "good," and we've all agreed to never speak of the Tim Burton thing), 2011's smart, intense Rise of the Planet of the Apes was better than it had any right to be. It also achieved something few CGI-drenched blockbusters have: It made a pissed-off, rebellion-leading chimp named Caesar, played by Andy Serkis and an army of computer animators, into one of the most memorable leading monkeys in history.

The sequel's even better.

Bare minimum—minimumDawn of the Planet of the Apes is a movie that features monkeys firing machine guns while riding on horses. By any reasonable measure, that fact alone makes Dawn a very special film—but director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) and writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback have gone a step further. They've gone and made an outstanding war movie. It's great: When was the last time you saw a war movie that captured, earnestly and insightfully, both sides of the conflict? When was the last time you saw a war movie that works just as well when its characters are speaking to each other—or scheming against each other, or trying, and failing, to trust each other—as it does when ladling out bloody, fiery spectacle? Dawn pulls off those feats—feats that most movies about humans can't even manage. With steadily building intensity, visuals that are both jarring and elegant, and a relentless focus on great characters—human and ape—Reeves & Co. have made a movie that... hell, is this the best Apes movie? Maybe? Probably!

And even if you don't care about any of that: Monkeys firing machine guns while riding on horses.