It’s an accepted fact in the cinema world that sequels are rarely better than their predecessors. The case has been argued for everything from “The Godfather Part II” and “Aliens,” to “Scream 2,” but. despite all the heated debate, no consensus has ever been reached that any of those movies is better than the first. So, it gives me a certain amount of pleasure to believe that “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is the first truly authentic example of this rarest of phenomenons I’ve ever seen. Not only does “Dawn” blow “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” out of the water in nearly every possible way, it surpasses most movies of its kind by striking a near-perfect balance of action sequences and compelling human drama. Future filmmakers take note: this is how you do it.
We’re ten years after the simian flu has wiped out most of mankind. Hundreds of genetically-immune survivors have holed up in a compound within the ruined walls of San Francisco, while the apes, having developed superhuman intelligence from the serum created in the first film, live a relatively peaceful life in the woods nearby. One day, a group of survivors out to inspect a disabled dam they hope may bring electricity back to their city encounter a troop of apes. Fidgety Carver (Kirk Acevedo), who harbors a deep hatred of the creatures he believes were responsible for killing off humanity, shoots one of the apes, nearly setting off a riot.
Enter Caesar from the first film, now the powerful leader of the ape community. Caesar, less leery of humans than the rest of the bunch, strikes a truce with their leader, Malcom (Jason Clarke): the humans can revive the dam so long as they dispose of their guns. Caesar’s deeply suspicious second in command, Koba (Toby Kebbell), warns Caesar that the humans can’t be trusted, but Caesar dismisses his concerns. Malcolm gets to work bringing the dam back to life with the help of his son, Alex (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and the ex-CDC nurse, Ellie (Keri Russell), both of whom suffered unimaginable losses during the plague.
There, I’ve given you the basic set-up of the movie and its key characters in the briefest terms possible and feel no need to go any further. Sure, the humans break their end of the bargain. And yes, the monkeys get pissed. There’s even a fine battle to the death that’s as exciting as anything since Darth Vader separated Luke Skywalker’s arm from his hand. But “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” strives to be so much more than a mindless showdown between simians and the men who threaten them: it dares to be great in the emotional core of its characters.
Consider the moment when Caesar, left with the burden of caring for his ever-burgeoning troop, levels his gaze on his impulsive eldest son, Blue Eyes, who has very nearly gotten himself killed by a bear. “Think before you act,” he says, with eyes that fill with the sad knowledge that his son is standing on the precipice of adulthood. How many parents have understood the pain of knowing that their children’s need for their protection is coming to an end? A newborn son and a wife in the throes of a critical illness aren’t helping matters much, nor is Koba’s increasing resistance to Caesar’s trust in the humans; but Caesar takes it all in, pondering each challenge with logic, strength, and more than a touch of weary resignation that war is likely on the horizon.
All of this dovetails nicely with the human story, as Malcolm meets his own resistance in the form of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the de facto leader of the survivors, whose misguided attempts to save the human race all but destroy his humanity. At some point in their intersection, Malcolm and Caesar come to see one another as allies, and even friends, largely because they’re in danger of losing faith in their own kind.
My tens or twenties of readers may recall my lament that “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was a pedestrian action film saddled with poor dialogue and unconvincing special effects. I complained that the apes never seemed to fit in the same space as their live-action counterparts, a wrong corrected in “Dawn” with such extreme prejudice, that I forgot I was even watching non-human characters. (Much of the credit is due to the immensely gifted Andy Serkis, who uses his motion capture skills to great effect as Caesar.) I ended my review of the original movie by hoping that the makers of the sequel, which had just been announced, would get it right. And get it right, they did. You’ll get my one and only complaint that perhaps the pace of the film could have used a little tightening, particular in its opening passages. At one point things seemed to be going on just a mite too long. But that’s a small complaint, given the movie’s remarkable achievements in action and storytelling. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a spectacular entertainment that shouldn’t be missed.