“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a dark film, daringly so, a sequel to a reboot that makes a solid franchise stronger.
You can debate whether it is as good as 2011’s surprisingly satisfying “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which upped the intelligence ante of the original franchise.
But there is no question that director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield,” “Let the Right One In”) took a chance with this film, creating a desperate dystopian society (for the humans at least) in which survival of the species (again, human) is very much in question. It will depend on our better nature, and that, like every other resource, is in short supply.
The apes, living in the forest, are faring much better. We see this from the start, an exciting sequence in which Caesar (Andy Serkis, back from the first film), now the leader of an organized society of apes, directs a hunting expedition that goes slightly awry.
It’s been 10 years since the first film ended. The simian virus introduced at the end of that movie has wiped out the bulk of the human population; Caesar, in fact, hasn’t seen a human in two years. His friend and lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell) isn’t complaining. Koba bears the scars — physical and otherwise — of the lab testing and torture he endured in the first movie.
Koba thinks Caesar, who was raised by humans, is too forgiving of them.
On the human side of the equation, survivors are living in the haunting ruins of San Francisco, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), bitter toward the apes, having lost his family to the virus, and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), much more compassionate, despite suffering his own losses.
A dam in the forest outside San Francisco might be the salvation for the humans, who have about two weeks of fuel left. But the area is occupied by the apes. Dreyfus is wary of negotiating with them, but Malcolm wants to give it a try. He takes a small group, including his girlfriend, Ellie (Keri Russell), and son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), to try to strike a deal with Caesar to let the humans have access to the dam.
But just as Koba mistrusts all humans on principle, Carver (Kirk Acevedo), a trigger-happy cardboard bad guy, mistrust all apes. Carver, however, is far less complex. This is true of the whole film. Reeves and the screenwriters set up a parallel structure — even Caesar notes similarities. But in every case the apes are more fully developed than their human counterparts.
Luckily, thanks to outstanding special effects, this works just fine. Serkis is even more expressive this time around as Caesar, who likes the life he has helped build.
Credit Reeves, though, for striking a balance between hope and hostility. One could argue that the end of the film is a set-up for another installment (and it is), but it is also an honest assessment of where things stand between apes and humans. Eschewing a tidy wrap-up, Reeves doesn’t leave us feeling manipulated, as so often happens in films like this.
Instead, we want to know where the story goes from here, and that’s no small accomplishment.
‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’
Running time: 130 minutes