While the human population almost feels incidental (because really, they are), director Matt Reeves constructs a battle for the soul of Cesar’s new ape society in this energetic sequel.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Release date: July 11, 2014 (USA)
Director: Matt Reeves
Stars: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Toby Kebbell
Running time: 130 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes belongs to lead performers Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell. As Cesar, leader of the evolved and rapidly developing ape society and Koba, his right hand whose loyalty is beginning to falter, Serkis and Kebbell live out the battle for the soul of ape society even as they hurtle into a real battle with the last remnants of humanity.

And that’s great, because the handful of name human characters we meet in Dawn are so poorly drawn that their inclusion almost feels perfunctory. Hell, I don’t think anyone says the name of Gary Oldman’s character until sometime in the last act. If Koba and Cesar weren’t so sharply constructed, if their ideological battle wasn’t so compelling, Dawn wouldn’t really work.

Set 10 years after the ending of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn takes us out into the sprawling redwoods outside of San Francisco, where Cesar and his band of super-intelligent chimps, gorillas, and orangutans have formed a hunter-gatherer society based on one rule: “Ape shall not harm ape.” It’s been two or three years since Cesar’s people last saw a human, and they’re halfway convinced that the plague that accompanied their evolutionary leap has somehow wiped mankind out.

There hardcore science fiction geek in me wishes Dawn could have lingered on the village a bit longer, just so we could see what his rapidly growing society has become: some of them have moved from signing to a rough language, while they’re young are being taught human letters. And it would have been nice to know why Cesar’s Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) has such a chip on his shoulder, even before the humans show up.

I suppose I should get around to them: an enclave of plague-immune humans have figured out a way to restore power, but they need access to the dam near Cesar’s colony in order to keep the lights on. A quirk of the script would have us believe that neither the humans nor the apes were aware of each others’ respective settlements (which doesn’t really make a lot of sense given how noisy both are), but when one of the humans shoots one of his own, Cesar has a choice: to keep the peace with man or listen to Koba who’d rather wipe the humans out while they’re weak.

And Koba’s kind of right! While the decent Malcolm (Jason Clarke, who’s only given that single personality trait) would like to seek peace between the apes and humans, nearly every other character is terrified of them (and arming up). Not only do they blame the apes for the spread of the Simian Flu, but they’re also convinced that these apes who ride on horseback, talk, and sign, are still just wild animals.

And here’s the interesting trick of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: the script largely makes everyone’s actions understandable in the context of the circumstances. The humans are afraid and arming up because there’s a terrifying army of talking apes out in the woods keeping them from turning the lights back on; Cesar knows that humans have weapons that could wipe him and his family out and would rather avoid war; Koba, who was a victim of vivisection remains suspicious, even if Malcolm seems really, really nice.

And that’s why the clash between the two factions (with a little nudging from Koba) feels inevitable in the back half of the film. It’s here that Dawn turns into a thrilling war movie, complete with apes dual-wielding light machine guns on horseback through fire. It’s a shift that feels like a natural extension of the preceding action, with Reeves controlling the tone so that it’s still the pulpy science fiction story that we all came to see without sacrificing the drama among the players.

Let me say it again: Serkis and Kebbell are stellar and the “human work” scene alone is great, forming the heart and soul of the movie. The performance capture – and these are performances working hand-in-hand with excellent CG – shows us the reserve and deliberation in warrior-thinker Cesar’s face, while Koba goes from fierce right-hand, to wounded best friend, to monster without ever becoming a cartoon.

This all makes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes very good, even if the poor realization of the human characters occasionally makes the drama feel lopsided.

Stars Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell are stellar and the "human work" scene alone is great, forming the heart and soul of the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which escalates the conflict between man and ape.
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