Who knows why, but the sight of apes sitting tall and proud on horseback is stirring in a primal way. That's one of the best images in Matt Reeves' Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the sequel to the enormously successful 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes (directed by Rupert Wyatt), in which a bunch of chimps, after breathing in a vaporized version of a special serum, become super-smart and break out of chimp jail, running roughshod over the Golden Gate Bridge and scurrying to eternal safety in the redwood forest. If you've seen the first movie, or even if you haven't, you may wonder, as two fellow critics and I did, if a Rise shouldn't actually come after a Dawn. Or perhaps they should occur simultaneously?
No matter: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a much better and far less silly movie than its predecessor. It lives so confidently in its invented universe that you almost believe a society of apes could thrive on the outskirts of San Francisco, with the little ones learning their alphabet by scrutinizing letters scrawled on the face of a rock, and the big ones casting deeply meaningful looks at one another when they're not communicating via sign language and the occasional spoken word. Hey, it's San Francisco — anything goes.
The hero of Rise, a noble chimp named Caesar (played, via motion-capture technology, by Andy Serkis), returns in Dawn: Caesar is now the leader of ape society, which has superseded that of humans after a deadly virus wiped out most of the world's population. The apes seem to be doing OK in the forest, and Caesar, who was raised by human beings (his mom was a lab chimp), has almost forgotten how much he used to enjoy the company of people.
Just then, a band of ragtag human survivors shows up, led by Jason Clarke's Malcolm, with his wife, Ellie (Keri Russell, as always a sweet, grounding presence), and son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), in tow. There's also a guy named Carver (Kirk Acevedo), who at one point very helpfully announces, "OK, I'm the asshole." Because he is the asshole, the shmuck who distrusts peaceful Caesar and his fellow chimps and thinks the best thing to do is to blam them away with automatic weapons.
Even so, it turns out that the scheming chimp Koba (Toby Kebbell) may be the apes' worst enemy, and a villainous human named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) shows up now and then to further stir the pot.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes doesn't cut particularly deep, even though Caesar occasionally utters soulful words such as "home" and "family." (His wife has just given birth to an adorable ape infant with Keane painting eyes, and he has an older son, played by Nick Thurston, who learns valuable lessons about leadership and humility and all that good stuff.) But at least Dawn has the distinction of being a summer spectacle that respects its audience instead of just pummeling it into submission. Reeves previously directed the lo-fi sci-fi drama Cloverfield, as well as Let Me In, the superb English-language remake of the Swedish emo-vampire chiller Let the Right One In; he never allows the movie's scale, colossal as it is, to overwhelm the story.
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Dawn was filmed in 3-D but it probably doesn't have to be seen in that format for maximum enjoyment. In fact, 3-D technology, with its slightly murky tones, probably doesn't do Dawn any favors. I kept peering at the screen through those cheap plastic glasses, wishing I could somehow get a cleaner, more colorful view of the apes' silvery fur, or the skeleton stripes marching across their chests.
Still, Reeves does so much right. He's deft at navigating the movie's action, including lots of acrobatic, chimp-versus-chimp combat. There's an unnerving and exhilarating sequence in which those ape-chimps on horseback charge into the city from the forest, pissed as hell. A few chimps and horses also stride, peacefully this time, through one of the picture's most majestic sequences, in which electrical power is restored to an old gas station. An excited human wastes no time cranking up the tunes: The song is The Band's version of "The Weight," and for a moment, ape-chimps and humans pause to take some pleasure in the sound, which drifts through the night like a laid-back cricket symphony.
This time around, Serkis seems to have slipped even more comfortably into the role of Caesar. I wasn't a fan of his ape portrayal in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, though it probably was the technology that held him back. Caesar clearly was supposed to look winsome and thoughtful, but even when he was doing something sweet, like clambering into his surrogate daddy's arms for a cuddle, I found Serkis' eyes, shining through that fake-ape face, to be piercing and hostile-looking. They're much more expressive here, even if they do reflect essentially one emotion: Sadness, for man- and ape-kind alike, weighs heavily on Caesar's furry shoulders.
The movie ends on a surprisingly somber note, particularly for a summer blockbuster. Human beings, as always, are their own worst enemies, but an ape utopia isn't so easy to achieve, either. "I want to sail away to a distant shore/And make like an ape man," The Kinks' Ray Davies once sang. If only it were that easy.