The exciting and intelligent “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” gave reboots a good name three summers ago, but “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” while solidly entertaining, doesn’t accomplish the same feat for sequels. The story keeps a steady clip, and the CG effects are impressive, but the film never lives up to the promise of the best science fiction and its ability to use the future to tell us something about the present.
The 1968 version offered multiple readings, from a metaphor about racism to a canny exploitation of our fears of nuclear annihilation, and even the 2011 film delved into big ideas about the perils of genetic experimentation and corporate greed in big pharma. (Let us pretend that the 2001 Tim Burton atrocity never happened.)
There aren’t a lot of shades to be found in “Dawn,” however; most of the characters are either all good, completely evil, or members of the faceless, easily-swayed masses.
Mind you, that description applies equally to the humans and the apes, so there’s at least some symbolism at play here. But while most post-apocalyptic sagas hold out a tiny glimmer of hope for mankind’s future, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” seems to suggest that the stupidest and most frightened and most violent and most xenophobic among us will wind up ruining everyone else’s best efforts.
It’s ten years after the standoff on the Golden Gate Bridge led by Caesar (portrayed by Andy Serkis, the Olivier of motion-capture animation) at the climax of “Rise.” The worldwide simian flu has wiped out all but one out of every 500 humans, and Caesar leads a tribe of apes living relatively peacefully in the Marin County wilderness. Peacefully, that is, until the day a group of humans shows up with guns.
It turns out that there’s a cluster of people living in the ruins of San Francisco, and they’re hoping to restart a dam in Caesar’s territory that would bring much-needed power to the city. Caesar drives the humans away after one of the apes gets a gunshot wound, but the kind and intelligent Malcolm (Jason Clarke) returns alone and pleads his case to Caesar; the two forge a tense peace as Malcolm’s crew goes to work on the dam.
Dissension on both sides threatens this détente: Koba (Toby Kebbell) hates humans for what they did to him when he was a laboratory animal, and he vows to make war on homo sapiens, with or without Caesar’s approval. On the other side of the bay, Malcolm’s colleague Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) thinks of the apes as merely savage animals, and he prepares an arsenal to fight them off.
The characters here (save for Caesar, who has Shakespearean levels of inner conflict) are flat and one-note; decide for yourself if returning writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver should bear the blame, or if it should go to top-billed scribe Mark Bomback, the man behind the listless remakes “Total Recall” and “Race to Witch Mountain.”
While Clarke, Oldman, and Keri Russell (as Malcolm’s MD wife) mostly flail about in underwritten roles, Serkis delivers another extraordinary performance as the franchise’s most fascinating figure. As Serkis has continually accomplished in a growing body of work, the technology involved never gets in the way of his intricate acting.
The CG overall is superb here; “Dawn” represents, in fact, exactly the kind of movie that should use the technology, not just for the hordes of apes but for the simians’ empathetic and subtle facial expressions.
If the effects fall apart at any point, it’s in the ever-present “uncanny valley” that’s involved in animating life-like creatures. The intelligent apes look great, but the standard-issue grizzly bear (and some of those horses) more often than not register as artificial.
For its few visual and many script flaws, however, director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield,” “Let Me In”) balances the splashy set pieces with quieter moments (sullen teen Kodi Smit-McPhee gives a copy of Charles Burns’ “Black Hole” to a wise orangutan named after Maurice Evans!) in such a way that “Dawn” never feels dull or draggy.
It also never feels as excitingly intelligent as its “Apes” ancestors. With the next sequel already announced, let us hope for evolution.