One of the better sequels to issue from Hollywood’s franchise frenzy, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a thinking person’s fantasy film. What’s remarkable about it is that it doesn’t seem like a fantasy at all.
The film begins in the long aftermath to the ape escape in 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” when a simian virus killed most of Earth’s population. Caesar, the hero chimp from that film, is now the head of an advanced tribe of apes (and gorillas, orangutans, and bonobos) living in the wilds of northern California. A band of human survivors has assembled in San Francisco at a weapons armory while attempting to locate a dam in ape territory with which they hope to restore power. Interspecies warfare is the inevitable result.
Director Matt Reeves and his screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver go in for a lot of socially conscious dramaturgy about the need for interspecies tolerance, which will probably earn the film merit badges from those critics who like their sci-fi accompanied by a dollop of instruction. I could have done with a bit less of this, but then again, the first (and still arguably the best) of the series, “Planet of the Apes,” went in for it, too.
What’s striking about this new film is that it lays out the message-mongering in such a way that you can enjoy the movie equally well on a purely action level. Andy Serkis, who plays the worldly-wise Caesar, is extraordinary, as always; so is Toby Kebbell as Koba, Caesar’s human-hating rival. (In joke: Koba was the name Stalin assumed for himself in his early party days.) The human players, including Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Gary Oldman, can’t help but come across as second-best to these apes, as good as those actors are. Whether the apes are grunting, speaking in sign language, or talking in English, they rule. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language.)