Four-and-a-half out of five stars
It’s a decade after the events of 2011’s "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," in which the “simian flu” turned apes intelligent and wiped out a good chunk of the human population. An ape society, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis in another motion-capture performance) exists peacefully on the outskirts of San Francisco. They communicate using sign language, eye contact and facial expressions, which works wonderfully here, thanks to motion-capture CGI technology that’s advanced to the point where we can easily distinguish a sagacious gaze from murderous stare. All of this plays out in a superlative opening sequence chronicling the apes on a hunting exposition so realistic and rendered so beautifully, it will leave audiences breathless.
After the hunt, we get a taste of what ape culture is like: a thriving, somewhat utopian society of chimpanzees and orangutans. They care deeply for one another, nurturing and teaching their young and constructing an ape ideal that’s the exact opposite of what they perceive human society to be. At this point, they’re not even sure if there are any humans left, and they’re OK with that.
But there are human survivors. In San Francisco, they live in the city center behind a fortified gate. They’re running out of power, though, and believe their only hope is the hydroelectric dam beyond the city. If they can fix it, it will generate enough power to supply what’s left of San Francisco. The journey beyond the Golden Gate Bridge is led by Malcolm (Jason Clark). Much to his team’s surprise, they encounter Caesar and company, and are shocked by Caesar’s ability to speak -- and more so by what he tells them: “Go!”
Malcolm and company retreat to the city, but he believes Caesar can be negotiated with. The city’s leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), disagrees, but Malcolm convinces Dreyfus to give him a few days to work his way back to the apes and, hopefully, convince Caesar to allow him access to the dam. Dreyfus reluctantly relents and allows Malcolm to take a team including Malcom’s son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), girlfriend (Keri Russell), and Carver (Kirk Acevedo), a hot-headed engineer who really hates apes.
When Caesar agrees to allow Malcom and friends access to the dam, one of his top lieutenants, Koba (Toby Kebbell), questions Caesar’s leadership. Koba hates humans more than Carver hates apes. This particular monkey was severely abused by humans and his overwhelming desire for revenge leads to some bad choices, choices that are terrible for ape-kind but terrific for moviegoers, because it drives a tension-filled story that’s as smart as it is entertaining.
This is not a mindless summer blockbuster. "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" harkens back to 1968’s original "Planet of the Apes," which had so much to say about that era’s cultural and political issues. Here, we see a clever allegory about today’s geopolitical landscape and the tragic decisions that lead to violent but avoidable conflicts. It doesn’t hurt that Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance as Caesar is truly Oscar-worthy. It is my sincerest hope that the Academy puts aside its motion-capture bias and finally gives Serkis -- who also gave life and soul to Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" -- the credit he deserves.
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is a remarkable technical achievement I plan on viewing a few more times before the year is out.