“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” set 10 years after the ape revolution seen in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” is a grander, more exciting, dramatic and thoughtful film than its very good predecessor.
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” released in 2011, started this series of prequels to the original “Planet of the Apes,” the 1968 classic in which apes ruled the world.
“Rise” introduced Caesar, a superintelligent chimpanzee who was adopted by a young scientist and raised in the kindly medical researcher’s home. The altruistic vision Caesar later developed inspired him to lead apes in a rebellion against humans.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” filmed in New Orleans and Vancouver, begins after a devastating decade for humans. Simian flu, a man-made virus, has killed most of the Earth’s human population. Civilization collapsed in the chaos.
British actor Andy Serkis, returning as Caesar, gives a motion-capture animation performance that’s powerfully present. Caesar’s qualities include strength, kindness and an evolved wisdom that allows him to place his community’s well-being above his own. He’s the benevolent leader of a growing community of chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans in Muir Woods, a former national park that’s just miles from the ruins of San Francisco.
The apes’ peaceful community of 2,000 beings functions like a pre-historic human community. Its activities include collective elk hunting, skillfully executed by troupes of chimpanzees in the northern rainforest.
It’s been 10 winters since the apes of Muir Woods have seen a human. But in San Francisco, a colony of surviving humans has found shelter in a former train station. When they send a scouting party to Muir Woods, apes and humans meet again.
With the stage already set for conflict, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” could have gone the obvious route: a simple action-adventure story, apes versus humans. But instead of some black and white scenario featuring apes as good guys and humans as trouble-making interlopers, the script makes events more complex, more interesting and genuinely suspenseful. All the while, Serkis’ thoughtful Caesar weighs his increasingly difficult options. Despite Caesar’s simian features having been largely computer-generated, the character’s demeanor, as rendered by Serkis, and Caesar’s actions combine to make this ape character become this summer movie season’s greatest hero.
Other ape characters in the film include Koba, a ferociously human-hating bonobo whose scarred face and body reveals the experiments he suffered through when humans kept him caged in laboratories. British actor Toby Kebbell, playing the wily, dangerous Koba, is a formidable warrior.
As it was in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” not all of the humans in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” are evil. Caesar is fortunate to meet some of the good humans and vice versa. Kerri Russell and Jason Clarke co-star as two humans who can actually see beyond their own needs. And then there’s Gary Oldman’s human character, the ruthlessly determined Dreyfus, leader of the San Francisco-dwelling humans. Dreyfus represents the not-so-good aspect of human society before the apocalypse.
Married screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, the writers of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” collaborated with new writer Mark Bomback for “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Matt Reeves (“Let Me In,” “Cloverfield”), a new director who’s also the director of the next “Planet of the Apes” movie, helms this great sequel.