Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a satisfying sequel in practically every way to 1911’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. There is no need to fret if you missed the first movie, as the sequel immediately sets the scene with a lethal virus (dubbed the Simian Flu), as well as all kinds of war and civil unrest, leading to devastation all over the world, with the survivors living in fragmented communities—and one community in particular engaged in a very uneasy truce with the intelligent apes who have made the Muir Woods their home.
Though the humans and apes are understandably wary of each other, both sides have prominent members who are desirous of a peaceful co-existence. The powerful but enlightened Caesar (Andy Serkis, aided by the art of motion capture) rules his apes to be more humane than his human counterparts (‘ape not kill ape”) but all will be put to the test on a number of fronts: the humans need access to the dam within the apes’ territory to provide electrical power, while Caesar’s seething, volatile second-in-command Koba demands satisfaction after years of mistreatment by his human captors and would be happy to be see his neighboring humans either dead or held in captivity by the apes. Meanwhile, Jason Clarke and Keri Russell are two of the human survivors who convince Caesar that there are some humans worthy of trust (especially when Ms. Russell helps Caesar’s ailing wife), while Gary Oldman glowers (perhaps justifiably) as the leader of the restless survivors, anxious to make contact with other communities, scarred over the loss of his family–and with an entire arsenal at his disposal should the apes eventually come looking for battle.
Skillfully helmed by Matt Reeves, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a bracing antidote to the summer glut of mindless high-concept, low-entertainment flicks. The screenplay by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver provides ample opportunity for exciting, disturbing action sequences, particularly a night attack featuring a smiling Koba gleefully brandishing his automatic weapons. Yet there is also time to explore the always (sadly) relevant ideas of the dangers of intolerance and fanaticism, as well as the need for compassion and empathy in dealing with other cultures, as well as within one’s own. If there is a flaw to the screenplay, it’s that the human characters, although well-acted by all the principals, are nowhere near as fully drawn as the ape characters. But then again, what characters these are, with Nick Thurston as Blue Eyes (a nod to “Taylor” and the original Planet of the Apes, perhaps?) as Caesar’s earnest, soulful son, and especially Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell, (aided by the visual effects of Joe Letteri) who are masterful as Caesar and Koba. Serkis presents a compassionate yet troubled leader who wants what’s best for the apes, his family, and even the humans. Kebbell’s Koba is a worthy antagonist, more dangerous than the humans, a cagey ape capable of manipulating both humans and apes to further his own violent agenda. It’s the tension between Caesar and Koba that propels this very fine installment to a satisfying, if bittersweet conclusion.