Primates Rule, Humans Drool: Serkis owns fun, albeit self-serious, "Dawn"

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
130 min., rated PG-13.

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes," 2011's solid, patently fun revitalization, rose above the yawning induced by Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes" reboot. It was yet another scientists-tampering-with-nature picture that still knew how to play smart, entertain, and leave the doors wide open for something promising. Now, the sequel "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" (not the most elegant of titles) is framed more as a western, and while it fixes some of the one-note characterizations of the first film, it still falters in the handling of its homo sapien characters. Where the film laudably excels even more than before is on a moviemaking technical level, making the viewer believe he or she really is watching an intelligent, gun-toting ape riding horseback and revolting against what's left of the human race. "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" may be outstanding and more emotionally affecting when focusing on the apes, but when it strays away from them, it's no more than functional summer fare.

In the wake of a simian flu outbreak ten years that spread around the globe after the end of the last film, San Francisco is left in ruins with an overgrowth of moss and no power source for the survivors to radio for help. Caesar (Andy Serkis) leads and protects his familyson Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) and their new infant sonin their own utopian society in Muir Woods. With leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) back at their quarantined base, human interloper Malcolm (Jason Clarke), nurse girlfriend Ellie (Keri Russell), his teen son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and others trespass into Caesar's domain by a hydroelectric dam that will generate power for the humans. At first, Caesar forces them to leave, but later, he grows to trust Malcolm and sees as much good in him as he did with his former owner (James Franco, appearing only briefly here in video footage). Inevitably, a tense war breaks out when Caesar's right-hand man Koba (Toby Kebbell) will not put any trust in man and rallies together his fellow apes.

Director Matt Reeves, taking over for the predecessor's Rupert Wyatt, and returning scribes Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback keep the themes big and potent. We never forget that humans are ape-like and apes are human-like. With surprising daring, the film's first ten minutes or so are like a day-in-the-life of the simian race—no humans allowed. They all sign to one another and even speak words; it's a bold and intoxicating way to open up. Perhaps the rest of the film should have stayed this way, as it seems the writers have an aversion to draw their human characters beyond disposable stick-figure status in fear that they will overshadow the animals. Then again, this is not called "Dawn of the Planet of the Humans." While the human characters aren't purely good and bad, they are still underwritten, not all that interesting and merely a means to an end so the film can hit on its thematic ideas of civil rights, xenophobia, loyalty, gun control and subjugation. Whereas the bond between man and ape was the heart of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," there is less resonance here, even as parallels are drawn between two sets of families. We learn of Ellie losing her daughter to the virus and ditto for Malcolm and Alexander's wife and mother, too, but the screenplay doesn't really know what else to do with them and then ends up stranding Ellie and Alexander in the end. Rather, the infighting between the peacemaking Caesar and volatile, untrusting Koba is most compelling to watch, as are Caesar's intereactions with son Blue Eyes and loyal friend Maurice (Karin Konoval), and we can't help but root for the apes all the way.

Executing action on a grand scale and knowing how to angle his camera with style, director Reeves brings what he learned in 2008's "Cloverfield" and 2010's "Let Me In," although few of his action set-pieces really stand out. It's hard to compare with the stirring imagery of the last film, like the apes signaling their arrival by a sudden shower of falling leaves on a neighborhood street or that deliriously enjoyable city showdown. This one has the chilling sequence of Koba acting dumb for two hooligans to steal their guns and the hijacking of a tank amidst the fiery bedlam shot in one impressive take. Exceptionally realizing every character he takes on with full commitment through motion capture, Andy Serkis is commanding and immensely watchable as primate leader Caesar, imparting soul and emotion in his eyes (which open and close the film). He really is something to watch and, make no mistake, the whole show, and ditto for Toby Kebbell as Koba. Without as much life or dimension, the rest of the non-motion-captured cast does fine with their supporting duties. Jason Clarke, as the compassionate Malcolm, and unrivaled character actor Gary Oldman, as the militant yet grieving Dreyfus, own a couple of their poignant moments, but Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee are rendered wan and allotted some of the clunkier, more tin-eared dialogue. Also, Kirk Acevedo is effectively infuriating as Carver, a brutish follower of Malcolm's who still believes the apes to be the enemy.

The results of "Dawn of the Planet of Apes" end up being of two minds. On the one hand, it's ponderous and smothered in a dark, substantive importance as a post-apocalyptic allegory with big ideas on its mind. On the other hand, all of that apparent ambition, which is too subtextually simplistic anyway, gives to a lugubrious heaviness before the ape-versus-human extravaganza actually gets going. However, it is tough to overlook the seamlessly awe-inspiring visual effects, which look tactile and genuine up on the screen. This is the dawn of hyper-real CG advancement, rectifying the flawed "uncanny valley." Although not quite a sequel for the ages, it's worth watching for the apes alone; the viewer quickly forgets Serkis and his fellow actors are really running around in their ping-pong ball suits.

Grade: B -