It’s always darkest before the dawn, goes the saying — but in resuming a franchise already suspended on a downbeat note, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” sees the simian revolution reaching unprecedented levels of bleak anarchy. An altogether smashing sequel to 2011’s better-than-expected “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” this vivid, violent extension of humanoid ape Caesar’s troubled quest for independence bests its predecessor in nearly every technical and conceptual department, with incoming helmer Matt Reeves conducting the proceedings with more assertive genre elan than “Rise” journeyman Rupert Wyatt. Entirely replacing the previous film’s human cast, but crucially promoting Andy Serkis’ remarkable motion-capture inhabitation of Caesar to centerstage, “Dawn” ought to go ape at the global box office starting July 9, smoothing the path for further sequels to test the franchise’s complexity.
Following the robust performance of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” — which garnered warm reviews, more than $480 million worldwide and an Oscar nomination for its stunning effects work — “Cloverfield” director Reeves inherits the Pierre Boulle-originated franchise in considerably better condition than Wyatt did, considering the almighty whiff of Tim Burton’s 2001 “Planet of the Apes” remake. Credibility restored, then, it’d have been easy to get complacent, recycling the “Rise’s” most impressive setpieces and welding them to a hasty resuscitation of its movie-science narrative. Instead, Reeves and returning writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (joined by “The Wolverine” scribe Mark Bomback) have taken a different tonal tack, fashioning the new installment as an out-and-out war drama, with surprising subdivisions in its central conflict of man vs. beast, and battle scenes to do Weta Digital godfather Peter Jackson proud.
The action begins approximately a decade after “Rise” left off, with a pre-credits montage of global news reports filling in the subsequent drastic developments: The ALZ-113 virus (or simian flu) unleashed at the end of the prior film has wiped out most of the world’s human population, with a survival rate of less than one in 500. It’s a slight red herring of an introduction, given that the virus is no longer the most immediate threat to man’s day-to-day existence. With all government functions suspended and nuclear power critically depleted, any remaining bands of survivors exist in spartan, unlit isolation; if the flu doesn’t get to them first, the lack of basic resources will.
San Francisco — or the post-ape-ocalyptic remainder of it, at least — is once more the setting, brilliantly realized by production designer James Chinlund as a gangrenous wasteland of vegetation-swamped slumhouses, the city’s erstwhile landmarks glumly clothed in rust and moss. Its few residents are led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), a former military man bent on revenge against the apes for the loss of his family to the virus. More sanguine is Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who spearheads a project to recover the city’s electricity by regaining control of the O’Shaughnessy Dam. That entails encroaching on the forested domain of the neighboring ape community, still ruled with a firm but hairy hand by Caesar; with relations between man and ape already fragile, this violation throws fuel on the flames of civil unrest.
Though Caesar responds to the diplomatic overtures of Malcolm and his medic wife, Ellie (Keri Russell), and grants them limited access to the dam, not all his subjects approve. Particularly irate is Koba (Toby Kebbell), a hot-headed, human-hating ape with mutinous designs on his leader’s position; when an equivalently reactionary member of Malcolm’s party is revealed to have broken Caesar’s “no guns” condition of cooperation, the resulting furor gives Koba the impetus to launch his aggressive counter-movement. (Sadly, the writers resist giving Caesar the line “Et tu, Koba?”) The script elegantly constructs its human and ape communities as opposed but markedly similar ecosystems, each one internally fractured along lines of relative tolerance toward the other.
The “Apes” franchise has always been a politically loaded one, and this latest entry states its left-wing credo in ways both allegorically implicit and bluntly direct. (You’d have to be pretty obtuse to miss the pro-gun-control subtext attached to misdeeds on both sides of the man-monkey battle.) While the previous film functioned as something of a cautionary tale against man’s destructive meddling with his environment, “Dawn” apportions blame a little more equally, as the beasts (introduced in a thrilling, technically jaw-dropping faceoff against a grizzly bear) are shown to be no less reckless an influence on the biosphere than their former superiors. “I always think ape better than human,” Caesar admits to Malcolm, his speech patterns having evolved rather rapidly even over the course of this film. “I see now how like them we are.” It’s a reverse epiphany that would have Jane Goodall in tears.
Regardless of whose side audiences might take, however, the fallout is inarguably spectacular. Reeves stages the ensuing crossfire in the human colony with much the same sense of kinetic panic he brought to the flipped monster-movie mechanics of “Cloverfield,” albeit with far more technical dazzle this time. With most of the below-the-line talent new to the franchise, “Dawn” has an aesthetic entirely distinct from that of “Rise,” with Michael Seresin’s antsy camerawork painting from a strikingly dank palette, and Michael Giacchino’s chorally embellished score occasionally evoking the grandeur of Howard Shore’s work on the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The editing by William Hoy and Stan Salfas rotates multiple points of drama before hurtling into a too-busy finale that sells Oldman’s arc particularly short: Still, while nearly half an hour longer than its predecessor, the film certainly doesn’t feel it.
Naturally, though, the services of effects wizards Joe Letteri and Dan Lemmon have been retained — and with even more astonishing results this time, with the enlarged population and evolved capabilities of the ape community (who can now ride horses, handle firearms and goodness knows what else) posing fresh logistical challenges that are seamlessly met. The fusion of the film’s motion-capture work with its sophisticated fight choreography is particularly staggering.
That Caesar’s community now seems so integrated and completely characterized is certainly due to Letteri and Lemmon’s magic, though much credit should also go to the actors behind the illusion. Serkis must by now be used to the superlatives heaped upon his agile fusion of performance and image in many a CGI spectacle, though he’s in particularly empathetic, emotionally specific form here; Kebbell’s brute physicality and wild-eyed animosity, meanwhile, burns through the digital disguise. Despite Clarke’s everyman likability and some reliably gonzo posturing from Oldman, the less hirsute ensemble seems a little bland by comparison. Perhaps the film’s on the side of the apes after all.