'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' ****(out of four)
A bright new day is dawning for summer moviegoers thanks to "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," a spectacular follow-up to the brilliant reboot of the "Planet of the Apes" franchise in 2011. Taking on the daunting task of topping the surprisingly effective "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," "Dawn" not only meet expectations, it exceeds them.
After an expertly-crafted opening credits sequence that picks up after the hauntingly effective end credits from the last film that tracks the quick spread of a virus, "Dawn" begins 10 years after the disease – dubbed the "Simian Flu" – decimates the human population. The action is centered, once again, in San Francisco, where a group of survivors who are running low on power need to get to a treacherous area in the coastal redwoods where a inoperative dam needs to be fixed to restore the power the humans need for survival and contact the outside world.
The quandary is, the genetically-advanced simian leader, Caesar (the always great Andy Serkis), has started a colony of apes in the forest land, and they've become quite evolved in the 10 years since the Simian Flu took its toll on their human counterparts. And while Caesar and the human group's leader (Jason Clarke) want peace, there are leery beings in both camps hell-bent on going to war with their perceived enemies, making a bloody conflict an inevitability.
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" makes it clear from the beginning that there will be no repeat plotlines – or human characters, for that matter – returning from the "Rise" (James Franco's and Frieda Pinto's characters are nowhere to be found and presumed dead). The risky move of sweeping away the human leads and changing directors pays off, though, as "Dawn" accomplishes the monumental feat of besting the original material.
That's not to say there was anything wrong with "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (it was one of the best films in 2011), it's just that the story, like the apes, have evolved in a way that's unpredictable and completely gripping. It's bad enough to imagine what a world ravaged by a virus would be like – much less adding in a group of beings like the apes – and not knowing if they want to kill you, be your ally or at the very least, have the same desire to co-exist.
Director Matt Reeves effectively examines all sides of the equation here, and those psychological complexities help give "Dawn" it's welcomed depth. For a film coming out smack dab in the middle of the summer blockbuster movie season, "Dawn" daringly is just as much about emotion – both human and simian – as it is visual effects and nail-biting action.
It achieves the emotion, naturally, thanks to some great acting by the likes of Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee; but perhaps more so by wondrous motion capture performances by the likes of Karin Konoval as the engaging baboon Maurice and Toby Kebbel as the menacing ape Koba – the most evolved apes in the group behind Caesar.
Serkis, of course, is the heart and soul of the film as Caesar, and one can only hope that Oscar voters will finally be willing to take a risk and nominate the multi-talented actor for his efforts come awards season. The collaboration most key to the success of "Dawn" is between the motion capture actors and visual effects artists, whose stunning visuals make you instantly believe what you're seeing within the ape population is real, especially with Caesar.
As another perceived prequel film to the story of the classic "Planet of the Apes" film starring Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall from 1968, it's going to be exciting to see how the franchise and the simians evolve from here. If a movie like "Dawn" not only survives but thrives by beating the movie virus called "sequelitis," there's no telling what's possible for the franchise down the road.
Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. He annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for BringMeTheNews, “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.