“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 and more 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 super-smart 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.
To play Caesar, British actor Andy Serkis again donned a skin-tight CGI suit of the kind he wore for his performance in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” as well as for his work as Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings.” The combination of motion-capture animation technology, which allowed Serkis’ human features to be digitally transformed into an ape face and body, and the actor’s performance produces a powerfully simian Caesar.
Caesar’s qualities include strength, kindness and an evolved wisdom that allow him to place his community’s wellbeing 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 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. Although Caesar’s simian features were largely computer-generated, Serkis’ demeanor 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 reveal the experiments he suffered when humans kept him caged in laboratories. British actor Toby Kebbell, playing the wily, dangerous Koba, is a formidable warrior.
As 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.”
And Matt Reeves (“Let Me In,” “Cloverfield”), who’s also the director of the next “Planet of the Apes” movie, helms this great sequel.