Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Is Much Better Than Its Predecessor
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's 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?
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
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via motion-capture technology, by Andy Serkis), returns in Dawn: Caesar is now the leader of ape society, which has superseded that of humans after a deadly virus has wiped out most of the world's population.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 bunch of ragtag human survivors show 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 schmuck 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.