Originality is scarce in Hollywood these days, as predictable sequels, prequels, and reboots seem like the only fodder for big screen, blockbuster success.
While critically lambasted films such as the latest (and truly awful) “Transformers” installment may set the bar low, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a cinematic sequel that doesn’t just deliver on the action, but also improves upon its predecessor in a way that only few franchise follow-ups have ever accomplished.
Set 10 years after 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “Dawn” continues the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis), a genetically enhanced chimp who’s led his band of mutated apes out of human captivity and into the forests of Northern California. Living in a caveman-like utopia in the woods, Caesar and company haven’t seen people in nearly a decade, as man has been brought to the edge of extinction due to a pandemic virus and global civil unrest.
Of course, the two species once again cross paths when a small pack of surviving humans run into the civilized primates while on their way to restore a hydroelectric dam to power their partially reclaimed portion of San Fransisco. Despite tensions running high, Caesar and the party’s leader Malcolm (Jason Clarke) come to a shaky accord that allows the humans access to the dam as long as they leave their guns at home.
Hatred on both sides, however, lead to the breakdown of this short-lived peace. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), as well as other survivors, blame the apes for causing the virus and want to eradicate their advanced, evolutionary cousins. Meanwhile, Koba (Toby Kebbell), a bonobo that was tortured in captivity before being freed by Caesar, also calls for war so that he can enact his violent vendetta against mankind.
The plot and imagery in “Dawn” may parallel previous apocalyptic, sci-fi films, however, its strong thematic content makes it more akin to a Shakespearean tragedy with a contemporary twist.
Director Matt Reeves’s follow-up to “Rise” is a much more involved story than the franchise’s previous entry, as it plays on many thought-provoking and timely themes, from the glorification of heroes to America’s obsession with firearms. The scene where a horseback-riding Koba gallops into battle wielding a pair of automatic weapons as explosions go off behind him is a pretty obvious homage, if not an overt critique, of the ethos of this country’s gun culture.
But what really steals the show in ”Dawn,” though, is the tragic figure of Caesar, excellently played by Andy Serkis.
The actor, who brought Gollum to life in “Lord of the Rings” and nearly saved Peter Jackson’s dismal “King Kong” as the ferocious giant ape, turns in an Oscar-worthy performance, even if hidden behind the pixels of a computerized chimp. Serkis’s facial expressiveness and mastery over human movement is a treat to watch, making Caesar easily the most interesting and relatable character.
Serkis’s Caesar and the other apes are beautifully rendered with the latest CGI technology, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself more enthralled with them than the human cast (although Oldman and company are fine in their limited roles).
It may be a bit of an overstatement likening “Dawn” to other legendary follow-ups, such as Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” or Star War’s “The Empire Strikes Back,” however, Reeves’s addition to the “Apes” franchise certainly deserves entry into the conversation of all-time great sequels.Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @MattchidaMMA.