Critic's Grade: B+
At one point in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a chimp rides through a fiery war zone on horseback, a machine in each hand. Eventually, he jumps on a tank, throttles the driver and takes control.
As awesome as that sounds—and it's pretty fucking awesome—it also makes it sound patently absurd to declare Dawn of the Planet of the Apes perhaps the most emotionally resonant blockbuster to come along in years.
This is, after all, a movie in which our simian cousins communicate in sign language and grunted, broken English. It features ape politics, a fight with a bear, Keri Russell and heavy-handed commentary about the genetic predisposition toward violence as seen through the eyes of monkeys with spears. And that should be absolutely ridiculous.
Yet, despite all odds, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes really is the most emotionally engaging blockbuster you're likely to see all year, a perfect mix of explosive action and poignant drama that delivers a master class in escapist entertainment.
Most of that drama comes directly from the damn dirty apes themselves. As with its predecessor—the surprisingly tender and unexpectedly cool Rise of the Planet of the Apes—the film centers on Caesar, the genetically enhanced ape whose intellect increased exponentially thanks to an Alzheimer's serum that had the unfortunate side effect of killing off the majority of the human race due to the "simian flu." Ten years after leading an uprising of lab apes, Caesar and his followers have settled in the Redwoods, raising their families and enjoying a human-free life of peace.
Of course, we know the peace isn't going to last, and soon the apes' happy, primitive village is happened upon by a group of humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the level-headed leader of a human colony just across the Golden Gate, where he and his more violently inclined co-leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) are desperately searching for a source of energy. That source might be the abandoned dam up in the Muir Woods, but when Malcolm and his crew run into Caesar's colony—which has long assumed humans were extinct—tensions ignite after one of Malcolm's cohorts accidentally wounds an ape.
After marching on San Francisco and issuing a "stay away" ultimatum, Caesar's leadership comes into question by Koba, an alpha male who sees Caesar's compassion as weak, especially when Caesar allows Malcolm and his crew to come back in order to restore hydroelectric power.
Eventually, of course, tensions erupt into all-out war, with doses of Animal Farm scattered throughout a narrative that evokes real history, particularly the events leading to World War I and the fall of the Roman Empire. And when things finally go down, we get a tense, dark, violent hour of mayhem.
It's no surprise that Caesar is played by motion-capture master Andy Serkis, who one-ups his iconic performance as The Lord of the Rings' Gollum with a masterful physical performance that at once exemplifies Caesar's physical prowess and his emotional responses. The effects on display—once again by Weta—are jaw-dropping, rendering detail down to every hair on the animals' bodies. But even more stark are the creatures' emotional responses—the look of pride on Caesar's face as his wife gives birth to his new son, the anguish when he is betrayed by those close to him, and the contemplative sadness as the pacifistic simian is forced into violence. Serkis and the effects team bring the creature to such startling life that the character is cemented as one of modern film's most captivating creatures.
But the movie isn't a drawn-out emo fest, either. It's chockablock with crazily inventive action, from an opening hunt in the forest to a climactic monkey knife fight atop a collapsing skyscraper. It's the perfect combination of popcorn drama and seat-rattling action, and director Matt Reeves delivers on all counts. Drawing in equal measure from his previous works—rampaging monster flick Cloverfield and the unnecessary-but-serviceable Let the Right One In remake—Reeves strikes a deft balance, allowing the film to transition from a claustrophobic jaunt through a battlefield that evokes Children of Men to a heartbreaking moment of family drama without losing footing.
None of this is to say that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is flawless. The human element comes off a little sloppy and rushed, and pales in comparison to the wonders of the apes themselves. The parallels between Caesar and Malcolm seem to be drawn with a fire hose full of ink, and the fact that we all know where this is going—"daaaaaamn you aaaaaall to hell!"—robs the film of some tension.
Still, considering this is a sequel to a prequel to a long-spoofed series that was already rebooted (horribly, by Tim Burton), it would have been remarkable if Reeves had made a movie that was merely competent. Instead, he's crafted a bracing, funny, emotionally resonant experience that might prove to be the summer's finest offering. For a movie featuring a monkey driving a tank, that's a goddamn miracle.