- Look, it's an ape riding a horse. If that doesn't get your attention, I don't know what to tell you.
You can count me among the thousands of people who were astonished to discover that 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes was actually a good movie. The performances, especially Andy Serkis's turn as Caesar, the first ape to gain human-like sentience, were extraordinary and the movie was tightly plotted. (If you want to interpret my celebration of a film whose script features a series of believable causes and plausible effects as a damnation of the stupidity of modern sci-fi screenwriting, I won't stop you.) The movie built itself quietly—or as quietly as a Planet of the Apes movie can—from a young scientist's wish to save his father to a conflict between man and ape on the Golden Gate Bridge, and it told a complete story while still making audiences excited to see what happened next.
If you enjoyed Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you'll likely enjoy Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. That in itself is no small feat: Rise had the power of surprise on its side, as nobody expected it to be a decent film. We all saw Dawn coming from a mile away, but it manages to live up to, and occasionally surpass, those heightened expectations. The film picks up where Rise left off, with the spread of a mankind-killing disease occurring simultaneously with the establishment of an ape community outside San Francisco. Over the course of a decade, Caesar has grown into a father, and a wise leader of his people, but his authority is challenged when the apes confront a small group of humans who want to use a dam near the ape settlement to power their small post-apocalyptic fortress.
Dawn has the same strengths as Rise: The acting and special effects are just as good, if not better, the second time around. Andy Serkis brings a bit of a self-conscious Shakespearean intensity to his performance as Caesar, bestowing upon him the grace of a man—or a mostly man-shaped thing—who knows he carries the future of an entire species on his shoulders. Toby Kebbell is maybe the first motion-capture actor to give Serkis a run for his money as Koba, an ape who doesn't share Caesar's fondness for human beings. While other motion-capture apes in the film have distinct personalities—Karin Konoval's Maurice deserves a Best Supporting Orangutan nod—Kebbell gives a true performance, delivering a subtle series of dueling emotions beneath the surface of Koba's simmering anti-human resentment.
And Dawn's plot is just as fastidiously constructed as Rise: This is a script that screenwriting teachers could use as a lesson-plan, with excellent delivery of exposition and a textbook structure that raises the stakes while never losing sight of its goals. The film's weakest point, unfortunately, is in the human community. Jason Clarke brings some nuance as Malcolm, a human who reaches out to the apes as equals, but the rest of the human cast, including Gary Oldman as hateful, fearful human leader Dreyfus, is one-note. We seem to be expected to root for them primarily because their characters are human, but the scenes featuring the apes are all much more interesting than the scenes with humans. When humans and apes are on-screen at the same time, especially when they're in opposition, Dawn really picks up, allowing director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) to shoot the action in interesting, and occasionally bombastic, ways. (But the 3D isn't worth it; go to a 2D screening, if you can.)
If I had one consistent complaint about these two Apes prequels, it's that they let the human race off too easy. In both films, the masses are portrayed as innocents, reacting to forces beyond their control; a few evil individuals may represent the worst in us, but our species is largely absolved of all crimes. I'm still waiting for the moment when the apes really declare war on humanity. I suspect the filmmakers worry that the audience won't be willing to root for the apes against a faceless mass of humanity. I think they're wrong; from the climactic Golden Gate Bridge battle of the first movie, I've been gleefully waiting for the apes to wipe out those damn dirty humans, once and for all.