Ever since half-transformed animals in “The Island of Dr. Moreau” asked the haunting question “Are we not men?” 118 years ago, science fiction has explored the thin line between humanity and bestiality. Few movies have done so as well as “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which shows how that line can blur and shift.
This sequel to the 2011 “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” continues the origin story of a world devastated by a killing virus and partially occupied by super-intelligent chimps, gorillas and orangutans who live in harmony in the California woods. As the film begins, they haven’t seen a human for 10 years and believe us to be extinct.
Director Matt Reeves, working from a script by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback, elevates the apes to primary importance in this intelligent thriller.
At first, the movie seems to be a metaphor for white settlers’ assaults on native Americans. The apes hunt and fish happily in a colony run by Caesar (Andy Serkis, giving the most impressive motion-capture performance of his estimable career).
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In comes an expeditionary party of men who have survived the virus, which spared an average of one person in 500. They need to fix hydroelectric equipment at a dam on the apes’ turf to restore power to San Francisco.
The apes grudgingly and distrustfully allow Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and his crew to do so. But Koba (Toby Kebbell), a chimp tortured by experimenters in “Rise,” can never trust humans. He sneaks off to spy on the San Francisco colony and finds some of them arming for potential war under the anxious eye of their leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman).
Yet the film soon goes deeper than that metaphor. None of the characters are villains of the types found in Bond movies or superhero flicks. Dreyfus acts out of fear; Koba, irreparably broken psychologically by his human handlers, goes berserk when his brain floods with rage.
Gentle characters populate both sides, from the orangutan teacher Maurice (Karin Konoval) to the human doctor (Keri Russell) who treats the injured Caesar. Yet in the aggregate, both apes and humans become malleable, easily misled and finally violent. (The film’s PG-13 rating borders on an R for moments of ferocity.)
The species begin to resemble each other, especially after they decide peace can’t be maintained. Neither ends up being wholly admirable. But if only one group can survive a war between these beasts and the tattered remnants of humankind, perhaps the evolutionary process will benefit by our removal from the gene pool.
Serkis has tremendous dignity and force as Caesar, whose name suggests a benevolent dictator. (He’s also more temperate than the image passed down to us of his Roman counterpart.) The title clearly implies the eventual outcome of this multi-movie narrative, and he’s the compelling link throughout the stories.
The visual effects work superbly, and the director uses 3-D unobtrusively. The most remarkable effect may be the animals’ eyes, formerly a weak spot in motion-capture animation.
Caesar fully conveys anger, pity, trust and despair, mostly with his looks. In a picture that alternates intimate moments with a full share of gunfights and explosions, the most memorable image turns out to be a closeup of Caesar’s disillusioned face.