It has been 46 years since astronaut Charlton Heston crash landed on the simian dominated world of the 1968 classic “Planet of the Apes.” This adaptation of French author Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel spawned 4 annual sequels beginning in 1970 and two short-lived television series, one of them animated. An abysmal 2001 Tim Burton remake starring Mark Wahlberg seemed to kill any hopes of a revival. Yet a decade later “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” an origins prequel sequel, got things very much right with a movie arguably as good as the original.
That film’s success aside, one may ask if we really need another drink from that well. The answer is a resounding yes. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” picks up ten years later. A tired and all too commonplace news footage pre-title sequence tells us that the hopeful Alzheimer’s disease curing serum that made Caesar the chimpanzee super intelligent gave birth to a viral pandemic that decimated humanity. That weak opening is followed by a fascinating look at the burgeoning woodland society of apes led by Caesar, rivetingly played by CGI performance capture king Andy Serkis.
It’s been two years since the apes last saw a human and only Caesar knows them as something more than a feared enemy. Some scouts from a band of human survivors suddenly appear seeking a dam in Caesar’s forest. If they can make the dam operational again, they can restore power to the nearby city running low on fuel. Their appearance puts the ape colony on edge and brings forth a deep seated rage in the physically and emotionally scarred Koba, chillingly brought to life by Toby Kebbell, that sees him challenge Caesar’s authority.
The ape characters fare far better than the humans in this outing. They are more fully developed, sympathetic and far more interesting than their mostly stock human counterparts. Jason Clarke (“Zero Dark Thirty”) is solid as the goodwill ambassador and chief engineer in the dam scouting party. However, Gary Oldman is wasted with a poorly defined role as the apparently self-appointed leader of the city’s human survivors who wants to kill every ape on sight.
The apes are the most astonishingly life-like they have ever been. However, as with any great movie, it is the strength of their characters and the power of this story that allows you to become immediately engrossed and emotionally involved with them. It’s an age old tale harkening back to Caine and Abel, pitting fear and power lust against reason and blood that gets caught in the unfortunate circle of history repeating itself.