When they do science fiction right, it takes the breath away. Even if you’re the sequel to a surprisingly effective reboot of a franchise whose origins are 40-plus years in the rearview mirror. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes demonstrates how much potential its predecessor (the stunningly strong Rise of the Planet of the Apes) held, then makes good on that potential in ways even the most optimistic fan could never dream.
Actor Andy Serkis remains the straw that stirs the drink, continuing his revolutionary work in motion capture performance as Caesar the chimpanzee. You can sense Serkis’s personality behind the exquisitely rendered face, blended with the pixels to create a character whose depths we may have only begun to understand. We flash forward to ten years after the first movie, and while humanity has pretty much gone to hell in the wake of that devastating plague, Caesar and his fellow lab escapees have built a quiet life in the woods north of San Francisco. They think they’ve seen the last of the humans, until a party from a nearby colony wanders into their turf. They want to restore power to a nearby dam – providing the remnants of the city with something resembling civilization – but politics, prejudice and a few bad apples put the kibbutz on whatever uneasy agreement cooler heads hope to strike.
You can see the writing on the wall early on, but director Matt Reeves has some tricks up his sleeve to keep us guessing. The extraordinary thing is how well the seeds of the first film tie into those developments, and how organically Dawn of the Planet of the Apes brings them to life. We see it most clearly in Koba (Toby Kebbell) the scarred and hardened chimpanzee from Rise. He emerges as Caesar’s natural rival in the ape community, an ostensibly loyal lieutenant growing increasingly hostile to the presence of nearby humans. His actions force Caesar to grapple with the limits of the simian utopia he hopes to build, and perhaps even compromise his most dearly held beliefs. The human community matches that tension, led by Gary Oldman’s Nervous Nellie commander and desperate to get the dam operational before the lights go out. His own underling (Jason Clarke) wants to build a lasting alliance with the apes, but if you’ve seen the previews, you know that things don’t break in such an optimistic direction.
The divisions cut across the two communities, revealing the kind of weightier notions that mark the best of this series. Pick your poison here: man’s inhumanity to man, ecological cautionary tales, how politics can easily lead to self-destruction. It all boils down to Assholes Ruining It for Everyone, a theme that marked this series from the beginning. Reeves only touches on the deeper stuff: enough to get us thinking and talking but nothing that disrupts the film’s status as summer popcorn.
Even as popcorn, however, it’s much smarter than the average bear, just as its predecessor was. The CGI does wonders in that regard, bolstered by another stunning turn from Serkis and ample work from his fellow “simian thespians.” Reeves wraps us up in their story with the simplest tools: sympathy, compassion and proper motivation even for the villains. Within that, we can take the story for whatever we want. As spectacle, it’s brilliant and if you’re looking for something more, the overall intelligence that went into this project raises it head and shoulders above its competition this summer.
The original 1968 Planet of the Apes may rank as the best science fiction film ever made, but it wasn’t until Rise that it truly found a worthy successor. Dawn carries the same DNA in its blood, and it’s very aware of its own history to boot. You can see little nods and winks to earlier Apes movies throughout the film, but it doesn’t allow them to dictate its content. The CGI is great, stuff goes ‘splody real good, and we’re left wondering once again when Serkis will get his due as one of the most innovative actors working today. But underneath all of that, the reasons this works so well apply to any movie ever made. We’re seeing the beauty of simplicity at work here: good storytelling married to interesting characters and meaty concepts. In an era as bombastic as ours, that’s something worth celebrating.