“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” a superior sequel to the already good 2011 film “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” subtly condemns prejudices born of fear, along with blind loyalty to one’s supposed tribe.
That’s already 80 percent more deep thinking than any other 2014 summer movie has offered. Then “Dawn” wraps it in extraordinary special effects, accomplished production design and exciting, believable action.
Lent a steady hum of tension throughout by director Matt Reeves (“ Cloverfield”), “Dawn” absorbs so fully in its plotting and visuals that one need not even think deeply to enjoy it. But it is better when you do.
“Dawn” divorces itself from the camp factor that existed in every “Apes” film before it. Even “Rise,” despite its significant technical achievements, offered heightened mad-scientist moments as James Franco’s Will (shown only briefly in the sequel) tested a viral Alzheimer’s “cure” on his father, though it previously had been tested only on chimpanzees.
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But “Dawn” is a pure A-grade movie, with trite moments but no unintentionally awkward ones, even though it stars apes that talk.
When “Dawn” opens, it has been 10 years since a variation on Will’s viral serum, empowering to apes but lethal to people, wiped out most humans. Caesar (Andy Serkis, in a motion-capture performance), the genetically evolved, Will-raised chimp that led his fellow apes to freedom in Muir Woods in “Rise,” is doing fine. He has a mate, two sons and the respect of his ape community.
“Dawn” starts with “Wild Kingdom”-esque scenes in the woods (though set in the Bay Area, most of the movie was shot in British Columbia and New Orleans) that show off Weta Digital effects artists’ mastery.
The apes’ movements look natural as they swing through the trees and when they later battle humans on horseback. The thought that these animals are digital creations, crafted via CGI from human actors’ motion-capture acting, does not occur until close-ups reveal humanlike expressions. Otherwise, the scenes seem to show living, breathing beings in their habitat.
Caesar is a model action-movie leader. He sometimes looks as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders, the way U.S. presidents likely do in private. When he speaks, it is as if the words are being ripped from him, his deep rasp also suggesting Christian Bale as Batman. When challenged, he rears up, his menacing posture suggesting he will tear an opponent apart.
This combination of physical prowess and thoughtfulness leads the audience to hang on Caesar’s every word and movement. Much credit must go to the digital team, but Serkis clearly is behind the animal’s expressive facial features. Caesar’s quiet scenes of conversation with his adolescent son (Nick Thurston) deliver “Dawn’s” most poignant moments.
Fears that Caesar can become drunk with power, hinted at in “Rise,” seem realized in a shot of an animal skull at the ape compound’s entrance (Col. Kurtz much, Caesar?). But Caesar is reasonable. He does not see humans as the enemy, just as flawed and the architects of their own demise.
He and his fellow genetically evolved apes believe humans no longer are an issue, anyway, because the virus wiped them out. That is, until they encounter a band of human survivors visiting the woods from San Francisco, where ivy climbs the walls of broken-down buildings on Market Street and a former law enforcement official played by Gary Oldman keeps order.
Regardless of where the San Francisco scenes were shot, they look real, or at least like a San Francisco that slowly is being taken back by the wilderness. (The virus might even have brought rents down.)
The human group is led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), a former architect, and his nurse girlfriend (Keri Russell), whose name I didn’t catch because females mostly are overlooked in “Dawn” (more on that later). Malcolm and the others enter ape land because there is a dam there they want to repair to restore some power to San Francisco.
An ape-human skirmish involving a gun awakens biases each species holds toward the other (apes think humans go off half-cocked; some humans believes the virus, dubbed “simian flu,” came from apes when it was only tested on them). Caesar tells the humans to get out, and they do, but the talking chimp fascinates Malcolm. He returns to the woods to appeal to Caesar to let them work on the dam. Caesar, sensing this man’s sincerity, lets them stay in the woods, though peace is temporary.
Clarke and Oldman elevate their lines in “Dawn,” a film of complex ideas and simplistic, overly expositional dialogue. When Malcolm says he already lost everything – including his wife – to the plague, and cannot bear losing more, Clarke delivers the line with feeling, as if it’s not a cliché.
Russell is bland, which anyone who has seen her in “The Americans” should assume is the movie’s fault. Though her character can perform medical operations and help fix a dam, she’s presented mostly as Malcolm’s plus-one.
Caesar’s mate, the only female of note among the apes, does little beside give birth and get sick. There is no sexy Charlton Heston kissing here.
But although “Dawn” views inter-species conflict as a male-only affair, its literal chest beatings thankfully are for show. In a key scene, an ape acts stereotypically to fool humans. These particular humans are dumb, so it works.
This scene offers many layers as it shows the arrogance of those who attach an inferiority to being “other.” Even a smart human character reverts to calling the apes “animals” when threatened, though the apes can talk and reason. Diminishing a perceived enemy can provide comfort.
“Dawn” does not apply its observations about flawed human nature only to humans. The film sets up clear parallels in ape and human power structures, underscoring how there are refined thinkers as well as brutes and Brutuses at every level of this semi-evolved animal kingdom we call the world.