The original “Planet of the Apes” franchise was evolution in reverse. The kickoff film with Charlton Heston was smart, cool, just a bit campy, and sported that shock ending that — spoiler alert — showed that just because man had less hair than his simian overlords didn’t mean he had more brains.
From there, it was the law of diminishing returns with a parade of lackluster sequels, seemingly the ultimate proof that some films should just be left alone.
But the reboot gives lie to all that, evolving and adapting to the times while keeping alive the spirit that made that first film in 1968 — and the French novel on which it was based — such a science-fiction firestarter. The new series began in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, director Rupert Wyatt’s vision of the spark — a scientist developing a drug for Alzheimer’s — that led to the apes’ rapid escalation in intelligence. It was a film that a lot of people didn’t have much hope for — James Franco? Monkeys? — especially in light of Tim Burton’s failed take on a new Apes saga in 2001.
Yet Rise was much better than what most envisioned, and now Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is better still.
It’s some time after the apes from the last movie have freed themselves from their Bay Area research labs, rioted on the Golden Gate Bridge and taken refuge in a Northern California forest. Human civilization has collapsed after a virus has decimated most of the population. But a group of resistant survivors in San Francisco — led by Malcolm (the always reliable Jason Clarke, Zero Dark Thirty) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) — is trying to rebuild, if only they could get electricity again and perhaps reach out to others huddled in small, terrified groups around the globe.
In order to do that, they need to get a nearby dam working again but, as luck would have it, it’s right in the middle of ape territory, which is overseen by Caesar (the incredible Andy Serkis), the chimp who was the instigator in the last film. What the humans don’t know is that the apes are continuing to evolve at a record pace, mastering primitive speech, riding horses and setting up something of a civil society where “ape not kill ape.”
Unless, of course, that ape is on a power trip, which is the case with Koba (Toby Kebbell), who hates humanity intensely and bears the scars from his time as a research chimp to prove it. So when Malcolm and his crew stumble upon Caesar’s ape city, Caesar is willing to compromise and let them have access to the dam — the humans seem desperate, he says — while Koba wants to charge into what’s left of San Francisco and kill them all.
This ape-on-ape conflict is mirrored in the human world between peacemaker Malcolm and the more militant Dreyfus, and especially hothead former dam worker/No. 1 ape-hater Carver (Kirk Acevedo). Of course, these simmering feuds detonate into an all-out showdown. But director Matt Reeves ( Let Me In, Cloverfield) keeps us invested in the emotional journey even if we know the destination.
Sure, Malcolm’s family — his concerned wife, Ellie (Keri Russell), and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) — and many of the human supporting players are stock characters. But they don’t distract from the film’s momentum.
As a technical achievement, Dawn is a marvel. Serkis, and all the other actors under layers of makeup, manage to show a range of emotions, while the meshing of real and CGI is seamless.
Yes, the whole thing is a setup for another sequel, already set for summer 2016. Yes, it’s Hollywood at its most manipulative. Still, Heston would hate to hear this as he cries in front of what used to the Statue of Liberty, but, at least from a moviegoer’s perspective, the coming ape-ocracy may be nothing to fear and something to champion after all.