This sequel to the, uh, prequel (to what, exactly?) Rise of the Planet of the Apes - and in retrospect, they should have named the previous film "Dawn" and this one "Rise", but no matter - is a satisfying blend of storytelling, action and Motion-Capture/CG effects, a blockbuster that may be even smarter than its predecessor.
The story picks up ten years after Rise ended, with most of the human race eradicated by the swift-moving Simian Flu, caused by the same experimental drug that simultaneously enhanced the mental capacity of simians to near-human levels. Everything that occurs during that missing decade is concisely spelled out in an opening sequence (overseen by my friend Bill Lebeda, a master titles designer). A couple of slightly clunky lines of expository dialogue also make it clear that the humans left in the San Francisco of the future all happened to be immune to the disease.
For some reason, these tightly-packed humans are completely unaware that the original brainy chimp Caesar (MoCap superstar Andy Serkis, terrific as usual), along with his fellow lab escapees and their new offspring, have built themselves a huge ape community just 15 miles away, in the Muir Woods.
As long as you can suspend your disbelief of this unlikely plot point, the rest of Dawn delivers brilliantly.
The plot is rather simple: a few human San Franciscans need to trespass into ape territory in order to fix a hydroelectric dam that can restore power to their city, and the apes are suspicious about this intrusion, to say the least.
At the core of the story are two small families: the wise Caesar and his kin, and a well-meaning human named Malcolm (Jason Clarke), with his girlfriend and teenage son. Both want peace - indeed, it's clear that almost all the apes and humans just want to leave each other alone - but of course there are a couple of bad apples on both sides (Gary Oldman and Kirk Acevedo amongst the humans, and a particularly treacherous ape named Koba, played by MoCap actor Toby Kebbell), and their prejudiced notions threaten to doom the shaky detente between the two species. The metaphor for the many bubbling human wars on the planet today is obvious, but the script doesn't waste time preaching. It knows we get it.
If this were simply the story of two warring human tribes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes would probably be rather trite. But there's real magic in these CG apes; with their delicate acting (and the film's bold decision to have much of its ape dialogue subtitled, as the creatures communicate mostly via sign language) and expert rendering. I got so caught up that occasionally I had to remind myself, "this isn't real". That's the sign of good filmmaking.
Kudos to director Matt Reeves, who's proving himself to be an interesting genre filmmaker (I wasn't that keen on Let Me In, his unnecessary remake of the excellent Swedish film Let the Right One In, but I'm a fan of his found-footage monster movie Cloverfield). At first I missed the stunning screen compositions in Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but once Dawn's explosive third act kicks in, Reeves showcases his own impressive visual sense.
Between the ape performances and composer Michael Giacchino's signature jazzy, bombastic themes - he's become one of the few film composers working today whose style is actually recognizable - and all the other cast and crew who were clearly serious about making a great movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is fully deserving of its hype. It's one summer movie worth seeing.