Three summers ago "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" proved it's possible to reboot a franchise while avoiding that sinking feeling of movie capitalism at its dumbest.
Now, in a disappointing July dominated with a shrug by "Transformers: Age of Extinction," the follow-up "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" has arrived. Just in time. The nation's multiplexes need a solid hit to save face and lend the impression that all's right with the business preferences and practices in Hollywood. Whatever audiences think of it, I'd say the latest "Apes" picture is just that: a solid success, sharing many of its predecessor's swift, exciting storytelling and motion-capture technology virtues, while going its own way in the ongoing tale of life on Earth after a human-made "simian flu" virus has wiped out most of the homo sapiens as well as the simian population.
The director this time is Matt Reeves, no stranger to fantasy; he made "Cloverfield" and the American remake of the vampire thriller "Let the Right One In" titled "Let Me In." The war between the ravaged species in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" has driven the surviving ape colony led by proud, diplomatic Caesar (Andy Serkis) to the redwoods north of San Francisco. "Ape not kill ape" is the principle of this clan, and the system works: They're alive.
But not alone. One day in the forest (the movie was shot mostly in British Columbia) the apes encounter a human survivor, played by Jason Clarke, on a recon mission to determine if a nearby dam can be restored to provide power to an increasingly desperate clutch of human city dwellers down in the Bay Area. Gary Oldman is their de facto leader, eager to take back the planet by any means necessary.
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" runs about 25 minutes longer than "Rise." The movie has trouble finding its rhythm in the third act and feels somewhat padded. Yet there's a lot going on in this film. As with the recent "Godzilla," there's an essential gravity to the mood here. And the human interest element is more present and persuasive in "Dawn," thanks to Clarke and his fellow Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee (of "Let Me In"), who plays his troubled son, and to reliable Keri Russell, as Clarke's lover, the kindest, warmest human left on the planet and one of the reasons Caesar doesn't kill them all in the first 30 minutes of the movie.
Serkis is the world's preeminent motion-capture performer, having lent his physicality and vocal flourishes to King Kong and "Lord of The Ring's" Gollum prior to the soulful, tormented Caesar of the "Apes" series. At this point in the motion-capture effects industry, there's little question of believing what we're seeing. We believe. We believe there is an actor, a real actor, in there, behind the eyes of the digital creation. This is why the film, despite its bloat and its overfondness for scenes of massacre, feels as if it were made by actual humans.
Two other things about this movie make it noteworthy. One is the musical score by composer Michael Giacchino, the best in the business right now. The tension and the atmosphere he evokes with a surprising array of instruments (he's especially creative in the percussion and keyboard realm) enhance every aspect of the viewing experience. It's an old-school sound, recalling elements of Jerry Goldsmith, among others, and it's remarkably free of bombast.
The other is the inescapable political element. I write this as a Chicagoan whose city has become an international symbol of gun violence bordering on insanity. In "Dawn," Caesar's ape colony has no use for firearms; only when Koba (Toby Kebbell), the vicious, ambitious rival ape, gets hold of humankind's weapons does the utopian community turn against itself. The movie's pretty grim. Then again, the whole "Planet of the Apes" mythology depends on a vision of the future that speaks very, very poorly of humankind's ability to trust and adapt and play well with others.
Following the "Dawn" screening I ducked into "Transformers 4" just long enough to see Mark Wahlberg exclaim, in awe, "Weapons!" when a glorious cache of mass-destruction implements are revealed. The "Apes" saga is different — sadder and wiser. The latest film is no less a commodity than those manufactured by Michael Bay, but it doesn't treat the audience like a bunch of gorillas.
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" - 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language)
Running time: 2:10
Opens: Thursday evening