Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Humanity takes a grim turn at the start of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: A virus, derived from monkeys being experimented on for a new vaccine, leads to an epidemic of Simian Fever, which wipes out most of the world's population in a matter of years. The Apes - the new breed of super-intelligent ones who escape to the forests above San Francisco at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (the fine first film in this franchise reboot) - were not affected by the health emergency. Instead, they have settled in a peaceful community led by the judicious Caesar (Andy Serkis), the ape James Franco cared for in the first film.
Franco is gone from the sequel, presumably killed in the epidemic; but not all of mankind is wiped out, as evidenced by a group of scientists and engineers that show up in the Apes' lair, which sets up the battle between the apes and human that comprises the taut narrative that follows. There's really nothing new here - it's a barbarians-at-the-gate story line filled with internecine warfare on both sides, but it most thrillingly rendered with technical brio and a sure sense of character development that makes it appear fresh all over again. Isn't that the litmus test for a great summer movie?
Much of this has to do with the depth and feeling that comes with Serkis's performance as Caesar. No longer the youthful, playful ape from the first film, he's matured into the charismatic leader put to a test with the arrival of the humans, led by Jason Clarke. They have come to the Muir Woods to fix a dam that could bring power to San Francisco - something necessary to the community's survival, since their current supply of fuel is nearly depleted.
But when a hot-headed human (Kirk Acevedo) shoots Caesar's son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), the apes deny the humans any future access to their territory. What follows is a bit like some Cold War drama, as Caesar must choose to work with the humans instead of going to war with them; but what makes "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" so resonant is how morally ambivalent it is. Both the humans and apes have the same issues of trust, ambition and the need to survive; leading to battles between and within both camps.
Caesar's foe is Koba (Toby Kebbell), an embittered survivor from the lab that James Franco ran in the first film. His hatred of humans turns him into a squinty-eyed, power-hungry usurper out to undermine Caesar's authority. When he does take over, the battle moves to a decayed San Francisco (superbly rendered in James Chinlund's production design that makes the city eerily feral), where the film becomes a long stand-off in which Blue Eyes is put to the test and the survival of both species rests on a slender bond between the humans and evolving apes.
Screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver cleverly evoke Shakespeare in the rivalry between Caesar and Koba (the stand-in for Brutus); but, for the most part, they pretty much connect the dots in this story of Ape/Man brinksmanship. There are no real surprises, and the humans - led by Clarke and Gary Oldman, as an ex-military man with a John McCain-like penchant for battle - are drawn from central casting. Nor do Keri Russell, as Clarke's kindly doctor-girlfriend, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, as his artistically gifted teenage son, add much in terms of originality.
No, this is a case where the apes have it. However the seamless effects are created (I imagine a combination of stop-action photography and CGI), by a company called Weta Digital, the apes are portrayed with remarkable believability. It is a case where less-is-more: With little dialogue (mostly monosyllabic) and limited, though highly effective facial expressions, the actors portraying the apes (which include Serkin, Kebbell, Thurston, and Karin Konoval as the aging sage Maurice) create distinct personalities whose battle for control make up the crux of the film's final section. The depth of feeling is not unlike that in a Spielberg movie, which is unusual and most admirable in a genre that could have gone for a far less thought-provoking route than is seen here.
What makes "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" so compelling is the way it uses old Hollywood action tropes in ways that are exponentially enhanced by the technological advances; this allows a performance by Serkin that blurs the lines between both. His Caesar is torn between his compassionate feelings and his leadership skills that may lead to all-out war with the humans. The actor beautifully expresses this emotional divide. He is equally matched by Kebbell as Koba, who develops a severe, manic countenance as the film progresses.
If anyone deserves credit for the film's success, it is the team at Weta Digital, who give the apes an emotional depth that surpasses their human counterparts. Director Matt Reeves also deserves enormous credit for his pacing and maintaining a brooding and exciting glimpse into the future. He's is abetted by the dark cinematography of Michael Seresin, the dramatic music by Michael Giacchino and the aforementioned production design by James Chinlund, which combine to make this vision of the future both fantastic and disturbingly real. Like "Snowpiercer," the summer's other thoughtful sci-fi epic, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" underscores how good a dark, futuristic sci-fi epic can be, proving once again that dystopian stories are the new black.