In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the liberated simians we last saw escaping across the Golden Gate Bridge into the vast redwood forest of Marin County now prevail not only over most of the world, but over the entire movie. The besieged humans on hand are a mild bunch, for the most part, dutifully nudging the plot forward; but the apes have personalities and passions and ethical concerns (along with unexpected talents for horse-riding and spear-flinging). This is a blockbuster with a brain, and a heart, too – a welcome thing.
The movie's message at first seems tritely Hollywoodian: while the apes have settled into a peace-loving tribal community, the humans – their numbers severely diminished by the self-concocted simian virus we saw unleashed at the end of the 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes – remain addicted to guns and violence, stockpiling weapons and plotting reprisal. But the story, constructed by returning writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, now working with Mark Bomback (The Wolverine), is more subtle: the crucial flaw in human nature is a deep one, and as we soon see, it's shared by the apes, and thus bodes ill for their future (in the next sequel).
The humans, led by the ape-hating Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), are hunkered down in the ruins of San Francisco, running low on both electrical power and food. A damaged hydroelectric dam across the water could be their salvation, if they can get to it and repair it. But the dam is located in ape territory – a formidable problem. An ape-sympathizing architect named Malcolm (Jason Clarke) volunteers to lead an expedition to the dam. He takes along his medico girlfriend, Ellie (Keri Russell), his son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee, of Let Me In, the last film by Dawn director Matt Reeves), and – with major reservations – a gun-wielding hothead named Carver (Kirk Acevedo), who's never met an ape he didn't want to kill, but who also has the technical skill to repair the dam.
Making their way through the forest, the humans quickly encounter the apes, led by Caesar (once again played by Andy Serkis). As we saw in the previous movie, Caesar was raised from infancy by good-hearted humans, and so has a soft spot for them: he understands their divided nature. His fellow simians, however – survivors of the humans' research labs, where they were tortured and maimed in the name of science – are not all so well-disposed. Some, like the gentle orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) do aspire to higher things; but one of them, a Carver-like nutcase called Koba (Toby Kebbell), schemes to depose Caesar and inflict a final solution on his onetime oppressors.
The movie is dominated, and illuminated throughout, by Serkis. Mightily assisted by Weta Digital's performance-capture technology – now inarguably the highest state of the art – the actor conveys rich shadings of thought and emotion. His Caesar is torn between love for his own tribe and hope for the moral evolution of the humans he knows so well, and we can feel the turmoil in his soul. Serkis's groundbreaking work in this hybrid field – in the Lord of the Rings movies and the previous Apes film – has never been recognized with even a nomination for an acting Oscar. His one-of-a-kind performance here will make another such snub difficult to defend.
Beyond transforming Serkis, Weta's digital effects are elsewhere consistently impressive without ever triggering the standard response of Wow, great CGI. The two worlds we see – the apes' sprawling treetop bowers and the humans' wrecked city and imposing last-stand fortress – have a lived-in reality that surrounds the story without ever overshadowing it. And the many scenes of multiple apes leaping and swarming and quietly interacting, in ever-shifting light and shadow, have a mesmerizing detail.
The movie's central effect – of narrative balance and cohesion – is a distinctive accomplishment by director Reeves, who demonstrated how much could be done with a very low budget in the 2008 monster flick Cloverfield. Here, most admirably, he never gets carried away by the boatloads of money he's been given. Even the setpiece action scenes – a hurtling battle involving Caesar and Koba, a ferocious assault on the humans' massively walled urban redoubt – are tightly controlled; they never go on longer than they should. And they're deftly punctuated with flourishes of humor (what would happen if a warrior ape got hold of a tank?).
The movie does have a couple of problems. The human characters are vaguely sketched, and they seem to be receding even as you watch them. Gary Oldman isn't the first actor one might pick to play a hardass like Dreyfus, and even Clarke – so memorable as the scary-genial interrogator in Zero Dark Thirty – is given little to do here beyond projecting sorrowful concern. The picture is also slowed (and dulled) by several talky scenes, especially the ones involving the apes—Caesar can converse with Malcolm in stilted English, but his fellow simians speak mostly in subtitles.
There's really not much to quibble about, though. The movie's blend of spectacular digital effects and actual ideas is a stirring achievement, and Serkis' career-best performance elevates the picture to a level of rare emotional complexity. If only more big summer movies were this smart.