The science-fiction thriller “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” creates a palpable atmosphere of existential dread — and I’m not talking about the usual dread a movie critic feels when faced with watching a sequel to a reboot of a movie classic.
No, here the dread is a good thing, a result of a riveting tale told smartly, with characters who are relatable and emotionally authentic. And, yes, some of the most intriguing and real characters are primates made out of pixels and unseen actors in motion-capture suits.
It’s 10 years after the events in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which ended with the global outbreak of simian flu. In a chilling opening montage, director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield,” “Let Me In”) uses repurposed news footage to describe the disease’s spread and subsequent societal breakdown that has decimated the human species.
Humans are nowhere to be seen in the movie’s next 20 or 30 minutes, as the focus shifts to life in the ape colony founded in the California woods by Caesar (again performed by Andy Serkis). Caesar is the thoughtful leader, strong in dealing with subordinates like the warrior Koba (performed by Toby Kebbell) and compassionate with his teen son Blue Eyes (performed by Nick Thurston) and when his wife, Cornelia (performed by Judy Greer), gives birth to their second son.
But when Blue Eyes and his friend Ash (performed by Doc Shaw) run into a human in the woods, things get tense until Caesar intervenes. He communicates with Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who’s leading the human party to find a hydroelectric dam that could restore power to the ragtag residents of what’s left of San Francisco.
Caesar and Malcolm reach an uneasy truce between apes and humans, with each dealing with colleagues distrustful of the other side. For Caesar, that’s Koba, formerly a tortured lab animal who wonders if Caesar is a “human lover.” On the other side, Malcolm deals with Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the human colony’s leader, who nervously amasses weapons while Malcolm negotiates with Caesar.
Couched within a drum-tight script by Mark Bomback (“Unstoppable”) and Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver (who wrote “Rise of the …”) are riveting scenes of human/ape interaction. For example, Malcolm’s teen son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), connects with the orangutan Maurice (performed by Karin Konoval), the ape colony’s resident teacher, while Malcolm’s girlfriend, Ellie (Keri Russell), a doctor, treats Cornelia for a postpartum illness.
These scenes, as well as Reeves’ handling of some ferocious battle sequences, blur the line between performance and computer graphics. No one does more to jump that divide than Serkis, the undisputed king of motion-capture performance ever since he played Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings.” Serkis uses Caesar’s physical bearing, his vocal firepower and expressive gestures to create a rich, moving performance. (Fittingly, Serkis gets top billing here, even though we never see the actor’s face.)
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is at once an exciting action movie and a thoughtful, melancholy drama about trust, paranoia and survival. It’s also daring, by showing humans and apes at their best and worst — and trusting the audience to find the good in both species.
‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’
Apes and humans meet in a desperate bid for survival in this thoughtful and riveting science-fiction tale.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language.
Running time • 130 minutes.