A potent blend of sci-fi spectacle and substance, Matt Reeves' exhilarating interspecies-war drama Dawn of the Planet of the Apes may be the best film in the franchise since the 1968 original, thanks to a perceptive screenplay that delves deep into the tragic nature of conflict and cutting-edge special effects that constantly dazzle.
It's been ten years since the Simian Flu wiped out most of humanity, and somewhere deep in the woods outside of San Francisco, Caesar (voice and performance capture by Andy Serkis) and his primate companions have established a thriving village built on the principles of peace and community. Shortly after welcoming a baby brother into the family, Caesar's son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) is walking through the forest with his friend Ash (Doc Shaw) when they cross paths with a human named Carver (Kirk Acevedo), who impulsively draws his gun and shoots Ash at the first sign of aggression. As it turns out, Carver is part of a human expedition led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who, along with the rest of his crew, races to Carver's side just as Caesar and the rest of the apes answer Blue Eyes' desperate call for help. An enraged Caesar drives the humans away after realizing they are no longer a threat, and decides to dispatch a small crew to follow them rather than yield to the pleas of his aggressive advisor Koba (Toby Kebbell) to launch an all-out attack. Instead, he decides to show the apes' strength by amassing outside of the humans' makeshift community at the base of an unfinished tower, making it unmistakably clear that the two species should remain apart.
Meanwhile, the point of the human excursion was to get a dormant dam running again in order to power their community, which will soon be thrust into darkness should they fail to take action. Convinced that he could strike a truce with Caesar that would allow the humans to repair the dam, which is located on the apes' land, Malcolm gets permission from human leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) to set out on his mission. Incredibly, thanks to the help of his girlfriend Ellie (Keri Russell), his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and a few other key allies, Malcolm succeeds. Still, his truce with the apes is a fragile one, and just when it seems that the primates and humans have learned to coexist in peace, a shocking act of betrayal threatens to spark a war that will determine the dominant species.
For a while, it was starting to feel as if the best Planet of the Apes films were behind us; between Tim Burton's failed attempt to relaunch the franchise back in 2001 and Rupert Wyatt's commendable yet anticlimatic Rise of the Planet of the Apes a decade later, it seemed as if the original series would forever remain a relic of the tumultuous times when they were made. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, however, Reeves and screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback all display an acute understanding of the deeply humanistic themes that made the initial films resonate so strongly with audiences.
Working with the special-effects wizards at Exceptional Minds, Weta Digital, and Soho VFX, the director and writers create a compelling alternate reality that's not only a convincing extension of our own, but one that's inhabited by creatures that are every bit as expressive and believable as their human counterparts. The eyes of the apes in this movie contain a full spectrum of emotions, including heartache, fear, anger, compassion, and shame. In a story examining the complexities of warfare, it's crucial that viewers are able to identify and relate to those feelings, and there isn't a moment in this film when those emotions fail to ring true -- both on the human and simian sides.
The ability to recognize those emotions also enhances the impact of the battle between the two species, and each time conflict arises in the movie, there's a tangible sense of the stakes involved. Although the violence in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes at times tests the boundaries of its PG-13 rating, every act of aggression reflects important aspects of the plot and characters. While occasionally excessive, the violence is far from gratuitous, and director Reeves occasionally adds stylistic touches that give it added impact -- especially in a showstopping scene set on a tank. And as the catalyst for this brutality, the character of Koba is played with chilling, warmongering efficiency by British actor Toby Kebbell, who easily holds his own opposite the immensely talented Andy Serkis. On the human side, Clarke continues the solid streak he's been riding ever since his role in Zero Dark Thirty, and Oldman serves as the frightening personification of the power of fear.
So while it's undeniable that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is science fiction, it pays to remember that the most effective sci-fi holds a mirror to the surroundings in which it was conceived. By fully immersing us in a fantasy world that feels completely authentic, Reeves and his team not only succeed in recapturing the spirit of the original series (which is also echoed in Michael Giacchino's knowingly retro score), but in making its thought-provoking themes of sociopolitical tolerance relevant through skillful storytelling and stunning effects work. If we can just set aside our prejudice and arrogance long enough to recognize the value in this type of movie, perhaps we can learn to start building each other up again, rather than constantly tearing each other down.