Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the kind of movie you go in expecting to hate. Despite the fact that Rise of the Planet of the Apes turned out to be a decent movie this one is still a sequel to a reboot of a movie that had already been remade. There is no way it's going to be good. Hollywood only ruins things. Except they didn't here. In fact Dawn is proof that with the right director and some care a remake or sequel can go further than anything that has come before it. Evidently there's still some creativity left in big budget Hollywood.
Dawn takes place ten years after the events in Rise. The human race has been decimated by the disease released in the first film and only a handful of survivors who are genetically immune have managed to eek out an existence in the ruined city of San Francisco. Meanwhile Caeser (a motion captured Andy Serkis) has built a large colony of intelligent apes who are living a relatively peaceful life in the woods. Problems arise when a band of humans led by Malcom (Jason Clarke) enter the forest looking for access to a dam in order to generate power. Distrust between the human and the apes bubbles up as hatred and human/ape nature collide, especially between Caeser's second in command Koba (Toby Kebbel). As with most interactions between two groups misunderstandings and mistakes turn into fights and wars.
The beauty of Dawn is that its story is as old as Shakespeare (literally, much of the plot is lifted from Shakespeare's Julius Ceaser), and yet thanks to an intense screenplay and incredible performances it all feels fresh again. Taking a deep look at the issues that have plagued mankind since the dawn of time could seem entirely unoriginal, but by overlaying those issues onto the apes, who are just discovering themselves as a culture, the themes feel unique and intriguing instead of stale. There's a reason we tell the same stories over and over and it's because when they're done well they illuminate our own faults and address our character. Dawn does this wonderfully despite being about a bunch of damn dirty apes.
It would be impossible to not rave about Andy Serkis' chilling and gripping performance as Caeser, but first we should talk about the unsung hero of this film. Director Matt Reeves, who is best known for Cloverfield, fills this sequel with originality. It feels light years further along than the previous film and his direction at times is breathtaking. At one point during a battle a 360 shot perfectly captures the destruction and chaos of a battle as the camera rotates on top of a pivoting tank. It isn't the only time that Reeve's camera work reinforces the themes and emotions of the film. He paces the movie fantastically and does an incredibly job pulling together massive action sequences while still maintaining his characters and tone. Michael Bay should learn a few things here.
Now to Serkis. Many critics are going to carp about him not getting an academy aware nomination at the end of the year, but I think this is the year they will be forced to give it to him. Caeser springs off the screen as the best character in the film and his performance carries more emotion than you'll see in most of the other films of the year. Even the difference between him and the other motion captured actors is noticeable with Serkis' performance standing above the rest. Even more impressive is that he does this with almost no dialog until the end of the film.
That leads me to what might be the best aspect of the film: it trusts its audience. The clearest sign of this is that the movie has a solid chunk of its dialog in subtitles as the apes don't speak to each other that often out loud. That's a tremendous risk for a big budget film in a climate where subtitles are looked down upon. But the respect for the audience rears its head in other ways. We aren't driven to a conclusion with a point being hammered in over and over, but instead lead to make our own judgement through a screenplay that smartly shows flaws in all without condemning any. This makes for a movie that both feels and is smarter than your average blockbuster fare, and one that all should see.