While “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was a surprisingly enjoyable reboot/sort-of prequel to the 1968 classic, the film at times came off as a trial run. It seemed like the filmmakers had a grander, richer story they wanted to tell but had to lay the groundwork first. Now that the exposition is out of the way, they’re free to tell that grander story in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Like “How to Train Your Dragon 2” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” the latest “Apes” film is a perfect example of how to make a sequel. It couldn’t have come at a better time considering how “Transformers: Age of Extinction” brought the summer season down a whole letter grade a couple weeks ago.
Taking place sometime after the previous film, a tribe of genetically evolved apes has overrun the Muir Woods in California. Their fearless leader is Caesar, played once again by Andy Serkis in a stunning performance made possible by motion capture technology. Life is mostly peaceful for Caesar and his clan, which includes his mate and two sons. It also appears that the ALZ-113 virus has wiped out all human life. Sorry, AIDS, another deadly virus linked to monkey’s beat you to the punch line.
It turns out, however, that there’s still a band of immune humans living in a section of San Francisco. They wish to access a dam in the woods to turn the lights back on and reach out to other survivors. To get to the dam, though, they’ll need some assistance from Caesar. Many of the apes are reluctant to help humans in any way, particularly one named Koba (Toby Kebbell). Although Caesar wishes to coexist with the humans in peace, war between the two cultures seems inevitable. Of course anybody who’s seen the ending to the Charlton Heston version knows that.
Jason Clarke, Kerri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Gary Oldman all do solid work as the humans. Once again, though, this “Planet of the Apes” belongs to the apes themselves. Screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback wisely keep their dialog limited, almost entirely conveying emotion through facial expressions and sign language. It’s actually rather astonishing how emotionally involving “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is, taking time for quiet, subtle moments of awe that are foreign to the likes of Michael Bay.
At its heart, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a Shakespearean tragedy meets a science fiction war epic. It’s all about humanity and takes the time to develop everyone as a three-dimensional character, human and ape alike. Even the villains aren’t just war-hungry villains. You can understand their point of view just as you can understands Caesar’s point of view. This provides a multi-layer commentary on the barrier between cultures, which some complained was too one-sided in “Avatar.”
You might be asking yourself, “how can a movie called ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ earn comparison to the works of Shakespeare, let alone be taken seriously?” But let’s not forget, the original “Planet of the Apes” wasn’t just another lame B-movie. Michael Wilson, who also wrote “Lawrence of Arabia,” and Rod Serling, who created “The Twilight Zone,” saw potential for a thought-provoking story about prejudice, slavery, ignorance and government. The people behind “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” saw that potential, too. Both the original and this film manage to take a silly idea and turn it into something meaningful. That’s more than can be said about the Tim Burton version, which only made the idea sillier.
Naturally, the film does build up to an action climax. But even then director, Matt Reeves, of “Let Me In” and “Cloverfield” never settles for mere explosion porn. He keeps us emotionally invested, not to mention excited, every step of the way. Walking away from the film, you can’t help but be pumped for the following chapter. As for what’s to come next, it seems like a showdown at the Statue of Liberty is in order.
• Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.