In Rise of the Planet of the Apes – the surprisingly good 2011 reboot of the classic sci-fi franchise – we met Caesar, a super smart lab chimp contemplating his place in a human world that would keep him caged up. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – the excellent new sequel which delivers high blockbuster thrills in a story with the dramatic scope of a Shakespearean tragedy – Caesar is older and a bit wiser, but still has a lot to learn about the cruel subtleties of trust and leadership.
Picking up ten years after the events of Rise, Dawn finds humankind all but extinct due to a pandemic outbreak of the same man-made virus that blessed Caesar (Andy Serkis) with heightened intelligence in the first place. Conversely, he and his posse of escaped simian brethren have since flourished into a thriving ape community in the temperate rainforest of northern California, with any humans happily out of sight and out of mind.
When a small party of survivors venture into the apes' territory in search of a hydro dam needed to power their colony in San Francisco, both factions become gripped by suspicion and paranoia. Only Caesar and the humans' cautiously optimistic ambassador (Jason Clarke) see the value in negotiation before declaring open war. A fragile truce develops as the humans tinker away at the dam under Caesar's leery watch, while the real threat he should be keeping an eye on – his own left tenant, Koba (the terrific Toby Kebbell) – is carrying out a sinister agenda right under his nose.
Director Matt Reeves smartly milks this slow simmer of tension for as long as he can before allowing it to reach its boiling point, keeping a shrewd focus on character development and plot escalation in the meantime. This might test the patience of juvenile action addicts, but the result is that when the ape shit finally does hit the fan at the end of the second act, it's an earned and believable development, rather than a needless indulgence in whiz-bang pyrotechnics.
Reeves and his cinematographer Michael Seresin save their most interesting images for this final third of the movie; These include an über cool shot from the cockpit of a moving tank, and one particularly striking composition which sees Koba triumphantly perched atop an American flag while rifle barrels point skyward in the foreground – an acute summation of the film's thinly veiled political message about gun control.
Not that anyone should (or would) mistake this for a preachy anti-war parable. Rather, it's more a study in how quickly peace falls apart, especially when people allow fear to govern their beliefs. That's just one of the astute observations that the screenplay – co-authored by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback – makes about human nature, even if it's observed in chimps and gorillas. Let's just coin the term “primate nature” right now and cover all our bases.
Indeed, it's hard to overstate just how 'human' the apes in this movie really are. One has to point to the performers behind the pixels when looking to assign credit for that most special of effects. Andy Serkis, who has become something of a figurehead for the growing movement of mo-cap acting, is once again indomitable as Caesar, but cast mates Toby Kebbell, Nick Thurston, and Karin Konoval (among others) are just as good at bringing their digital makeup to life.
Of course, none of it would be possible without the workhorses at Weta. Much like its 2011 predecessor, which broke ground in the field of performance capture technique, the effects in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes are unparalleled both in terms of pure quality and in terms of how vitally they service the story. Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to Joe Letteri and company is that after a while, one stops marvelling at how photo-realistic the CGI is and simply buys the illusion. Unfortunately, as was also the case with Rise, this team may be doomed yet again to lose the Best Visual Effects Oscar they so indisputably deserve.
Naturally, all the others craft elements are up to snuff, boasting slick editing, sound, and production design. At parts, Michael Giacchino's music can even be caught aping (tee hee) Jerry Goldsmith's xylophone-laden score from the original 1968 Planet of the Apes. But all would've been wasted without the strong story and the wondrous technology that allow the actors to tell it so soulfully. Here's hoping we can get a few more Apes films as good as this one before those maniacs eventually blow up the Statue of Liberty!
***1/2 out of ****