Thanks to a smart and exhilarating first half and powerful finale, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is the best action movie of the summer in a year of more than a few mind-numbing duds. Improving on some of the flaws of the intriguing reboot “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “Dawn” digs deep into the characters and comes up with a sophisticated sci-fi action epic that has the intelligence to flush the usual “good vs. bad” playbook right down the toilet. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” ends up being an entertaining bit of action filmmaking that isn’t afraid to reflect on the nature of two close civilizations that seem to be incapable of not leading themselves directly to war.
When we left the apes in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” brilliant leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) had freed the rest of his companions and fled to the woods north of San Francisco, leaving humans stunned in their wake. With fear running rampant, the humans try to come up with a solution but ironically only succeed in nearly wiping out their entire civilization in the process – all while Caesar firms up his command and begins to build a civilization in the refuge of the forest. Now, humans are but a scattered and seriously diminished group that isn’t a great deal further along than they were thousands of years earlier. Though Caesar and his orangutan buddy Maurice (Karin Konoval) whisper about humans potentially still being alive, they’re not even sure they’ll ever cross paths with a human ever again.
But things quickly change when two apes stumble upon a team of humans coming through the woods, seemingly out of nowhere. While there are a few cool heads on both sides, an incident is sparked when a paranoid hillbilly (Kirk Acevedo) misinterprets the scenario and shoots one of the apes. This isn’t a good move. Though the small pack of humans has a few guns, they are on the apes’ turf now, and they move in unison under the guidance of their wise and charismatic leader, Caesar. Despite the clear numbers’ advantage, however, Caesar strongly advises them to go and to not come back, kicking off a series of events that lead the apes and the humans into each other’s paths.
And that’s precisely where writers Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver get it exactly right. Though common wisdom dictates that a sequel needs to involve the end of the world in one way or another, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” boils everything down to a focused conflict between a desperate faction of humans and a rapidly expanding ape civilization. We may be talking about super-smart apes and a sci-fi backdrop, but the themes run parallel to the types of conflicts that human civilizations have been battling since the dawn of man. Though human leader Malcolm (Jason Clarke) sees wisdom and greatness in Caesar, many of the others in his camp can only see the apes as dangerous threats that need to be dealt with. Even with Caesar deciding to help the humans by allowing them access to an old, power-generating dam, here we have two primal civilizations that feel almost destined for all-out conflict.
With the pieces carefully in place, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” continues to build the story to the point you might even forget about how wonderful the special effects actually are. The apes are starting to speak a word here and there, but mainly they communicate their personalities visually – a remarkable combination of special effects and physical performance. Once again, Andy Serkis brings Caesar to life and makes him into a sympathetic figure that embodies many of the best qualities normally considered human. As the chief leader of the struggling humans, Gary Oldman delivers some crucial scenes that provide considerable depth for his character, Dreyfus, without a lot of screen time. As Malcolm’s new girl Ellie, Keri Russell also provides some important scenes that are emotionally charged without ever feeling like daytime soap operas.
More than anything, however, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” succeeds because it doesn’t let the right versus wrong debate take over the plot, which is a way that plenty of decent action movies have hit the self-destruct button. Caesar and Malcolm may create a nice moral center to the film, but it’s the attitudes and actions of the fringe characters that bring about unexpected consequences and uncertainty. With deranged members of both civilizations refusing to learn anything about their supposed foe, “Dawn” shows how quickly two groups can drift away from peace once unplanned incidents begin turning into scars. While many action movies these days seem to be on autopilot once the good and bad roles are outlined, “Dawn” feels spontaneous and delightfully free of the formula, even when it’s using it.
In the midst of one of the worst summers for action blockbusters in a while, an inspired effort like “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is more than just a breath of fresh air; it’s a reminder of why the entire summer blockbuster phenomenon got started in the first place. While the atrocious “Transformers” series across the hall is a disturbing manifestation of the popcorn flick, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a carefully put together, emotionally stirring and chilling thrill-ride that can sit comfortably next to the action classics of the 70s and 80s that started it all. Another step up from the solid “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “Dawn” is a movie with big ideas and an exciting story that deserves its place among cinema’s very best sequels. Mainstream movies simplydon’t get much better.