By now we all recognize that Hollywood is driven by the big money and bigger spectacle that sequels provide, with narrative need probably way down the totem pole when considering such follow-ups. As we've just endured the third unnecessary Transformers sequel, such things can prove to be a little depressing, and there was some concern that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes could be just another soulless sequel churned out by the system with pumped up CGI and no real heart. But the film, a technical and thematic marvel crafted by Matt Reeves, is not only exciting in the way we all want summer blockbusters to be, it improves on its predecessor in just about every way.
That's not a knock on Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a film that far exceeded expectations largely by giving in to its sci-fi B-movie roots. It worked as a warning to man's selfish meddling in the ways of nature and as a campy action flick about rampaging apes. 'Dawn' is considerably more serious but let's be honest here, this isn't the "Planet of the Apes and those Pesky Humans' series. We expect things to get a little dark along the way and probably won't turn out so well for our side. Action and violence, of which there are plenty of both, doesn't simply occur for the sake of momentary thrills. Every life-or-death decision is weighed, measured, and has real significance to the future of two opposing species.
Building on the sturdy foundation laid by the prior film, this one moves forward in time ten years after the human population has nearly been eradicated by the Simian Flu. Caesar (Andy Serkis, and let's just say the man deserves an Oscar by now) is no longer the young, genetically evolved ape we saw before. Now he's the leader of a tribe, and more than that he's got a wife (Judy Greer) and young son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), relying on him. Like any leader, Caesar has those who are loyal and some like the badly-scarred Koba (Toby Kebbell), who claim loyalty but have their own motivations. The rules of their society are pretty simple, with the biggest rule scrawled in chalk, "Ape no kill ape". Humans haven't been spotted in what remains of San Francisco in years, so when a small pocket of them are encountered and it ends in bloodshed, some of Caesar's followers start sounding the drumbeat for war.
Screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver draw obvious but resonant parallels between Caesar and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), a leading voice amongst the humans with his own son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and lover (Keri Russell) to take care of. Unlike some of the others in their group, neither Malcolm or Caesar wants a battle, recognizing that a full scale war could destroy them all. But the humans need power to rebuild civilization, and the only source is on the apes' home turf. Without it, people have essentially reverted back to a primal state and their desperate, battle-ready leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman, in Commissioner Gordon mode) is ready to do anything to change that.
Analogies to race relations or the ongoing conflict in the Middle East are clear but never beaten to death. It's far more concerned with common themes of loyalty, family, and betrayal, all of which are approached with sincerity and intelligence. When Caesar becomes father to a newborn child, we recognize how the stakes have been elevated and why he makes certain choices. Of course, we also know that whatever he decides it will end up with hundreds of digital apes swinging from power lines and firing machine guns from horseback. How would you like to be a normal animal in a world of evolved chimps? That must really suck. Anyway, when monkey mayhem ensues it's quite the computer-generated showcase. Reeves has done some spectacular digital effects work before, most notably in the monster flick Cloverfield. But let's not forget he also directed the superior vampire remake, Let Me In, and 'Dawn' impressively combines pot boiling thrills with moments of sheer horror. Comedy is sparse but there are a few moments of monkey mockery that are worth a laugh. They tend to end with somebody dying but they're funny for a time.
What more is there to say about Andy Serkis' performance capture work at this point? The emotion he's able to wring is truly exceptional, and I've personally come around to thinking we need a special category for honoring what he's so consistently been able to do. One only wishes the humans had more to work with. Clarke makes the most of a character that is basically just meant to play a lesser version of Caesar. Oldman is never given a chance to be the firebrand his character would seem to demand. But as noted before, this is 'Planet of the Apes', and so they get the bulk of the character focus. Where 'Rise' was mostly a movie about humans, we're clearly meant to land on the side of the apes now and it feels a little counter-intuitive at first.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a deeply intelligent, wildly entertaining sequel that proves the summer blockbuster is capable of evolution, too.