Do you remember how gobsmacked we were in 2011 when Rise of the Planet of the Apes opened and we all thought it would suck and, well, it didn't? Sequel fatigue from four follow-ups to the stellar 1968 original, plus Tim Burton's plodding 2001 reboot, had left us with less than zero expectations. And then, pow, Rise got our adrenaline pumping with actors playing apes in motion-capture suits, using digital technology to help register ferocity and feeling, even in the subtlest eye blink. We were hooked.
The good news about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, set a decade after Rise, is that the apes look even better. Hell, they're running, stomping, gun-toting, horseback-riding, English-speaking wonders. The downside is that the success of Rise built up impossible hopes for Dawn. Maybe the human actors wouldn't be so lame, maybe the grunting plot clichés would be banished to the next Michael Bay film.
That didn't happen. Still, within the fertile area between promise and execution, Dawn is dynamite entertainment, especially in the rousing first hour. Taking over the directing reins from Rise's Rupert Wyatt, Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) pinballs us right into the action. The simian virus that James Franco concocted in the last film has enhanced the ape brain but near-decimated the human population. The apes who fled into the woods outside San Francisco are now in charge. Just watch alpha ape Caesar, again played by the indisputably great Andy Serkis, lead his band of brothers as they swing from trees, attack a herd of elk and then vanquish a giant bear. You'll be astonished at what film can do in the digital era. Rise was basically shot in a studio. In Dawn, Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin bring the 3D technology right out into real space, the forests of Vancouver standing in for Northern Cali. The effect inspires awe, making you wish that Dawn could truly be a planet of just apes.
It's a bummer when the damn dirty humans show up, trying to regain the upper hand. The apes are horrified. I was, too. No slur on the actors. That's the esteemed Gary Oldman as a nutso ex-cop who blames the apes for killing his family. And Jason Clarke does what he can as an architect and widower trying to raise his teen son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) while romancing a medic (Keri Russell) and rebuilding a power plant. But how can they counteract a script by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver that gets silly, especially when the chimps indulge in halting English: "Ape no kill ape"?
Critic no kill plot twists, except to say that the climactic battle is a humdinger. Save the biggest cheer for Serkis, whose triumphant performance is the gold standard in mo-cap acting. Caesar's desire for peace puts him in mortal conflict with Koba (the superb Toby Kebbell), an ape who seeks the annihilation of all mankind. In case you miss the point that the same split exists in the human community, the script hammers it home repeatedly. As profundity, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes falls short. As spectacle, it's a groundbreaker.