“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is an action-packed epic, a moving sci-fi allegory rendered in broad, lush strokes by the latest state of the computer animator's art.
Yes, you will believe a chimp can talk, ride a horse and fire a machine gun. These evolved animated apes have fur with feeling, expressive faces, fangs and eyes that show them well on their way to being human. “Dawn” illustrates the accelerating pace of improvements to CGI — with performances built around motion-capture-suited actors Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell among others — in sequences so dazzling your jaw will drop.
It's all in service of an utterly conventional story, however, one you'll be three steps ahead of even if you have no memories of the '70s “Apes” movie (“Battle for the Planet of the Apes”) this is largely based on. If you've ever seen a cavalry-vs.-Indians Western, a war movie built around pacifist efforts that ask “Can't we all just get along?”, you'll see this genre piece's plot twists coming.
In a brisk opening credits sequence, we see the world's collapse post-“Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” “The Simian Flu” felled much of the human race, snippets of newscasts from around the world tell us. Few survived.
Meanwhile, the first scientifically evolved ape, Caesar (Serkis), has led his tribe into the Muir Woods, where they've built a village, mastered fire, SSL (Simian Sign Language) and horseback riding, isolated and safe from human interference.
“Humans destroyed each other,” Caesar counsels. So apes must live by a higher code: “Ape not kill ape.”
Then some humans, led by the curious and compassionate Malcolm (Jason Clarke), encounter the colony. Caesar strikes a pose at the head of his legions, and the humans, even though they're armed to the teeth, tremble. The Ape in Chief doesn't stutter when he issues an order to the intruders.
Of course, the humans have need of something within ape territory. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is ready to arm the troops and invade. But Malcolm, his Centers for Disease Control girlfriend (Keri Russell) and sketch-pad happy son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are given a couple of days to work out a treaty, get the electrical power back on and save humans and apes from what is sure to be a bloody war.
Director Matt (“Cloverfield”) Reeves and his team make good use of 3-D space as we see apes swinging through real trees in the Muir Woods, and by power lines through digitally rendered ruins of San Francisco, including the Golden Gate Bridge.
They get less use out of the cast, with Clarke playing a cardboard cut-out, Russell given nothing to do and Oldman's character watered-down to the point where he's no challenge to Malcolm's overly trusting pacifism. Hints of the family they've lost, the grief they carry, are just that — hints.
There are advocates of violence in both camps, and the paranoid have a point. Trusting the other side could lead to human or simian extinction.
Make your own Middle Eastern, race relations/racism allegories here, because the script leaves plenty of room for those interpretations. Wary foes stare each other down as they, and we, wait for some hothead's miscalculation (or calculation) to ignite a war.
There isn't much time for humor, but a few moments have apes mocking human behavior. And if you're not a little amused by the sight of a chimp, on horseback, firing two assault rifles as he gallops into battle, you're taking this too seriously.
It's hard to know who to root for, which was always the point of these movies. Yeah, we're obligated to hope humanity doesn't go extinct, even if we brought this down on ourselves. But the apes in “Dawn” are awfully darned appealing, learning the hard way that ape lesson of Stanley Kubrick's “2001: A Space Odyssey”— that murder and treachery are the traits that make us, and them, most human.