July 11, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tom Long

Review: 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' hits new genre heights

Apes confront some of what is left of human civilization in the sci-fi 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,' which takes place a decade after 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes.' (Twentieth Century Fox)

Sometimes the sequel actually is better than the original.

Of course, in the case of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” we’re talking about the sequel to a prequel to a long line of films that date back to 1968. But it’s doubtful any of those films could come close to matching the visual spectacle and Shakespearean interplay of “Dawn.”

Yes, this may be the best movie about talking apes ever made.

Then again, it is a movie about talking apes. And it’s also just the latest entry in Hollywood’s accelerating end-of-the-world sweepstakes. So let’s not go bananas.

Still, director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield,” “Let Me In”), freed of the constraints of an origin story, stirs up a seeming never-ending conflict between man and super-ape with some of drama’s most enduring ingredients — betrayal, jealousy, fear and the hunger for power.

And he wisely spends more time in the ape camp than with the humans because, let’s face it, most of us meet talking humans every day. A talking ape is inherently more interesting. Especially when those apes are trying to build a society.

“Dawn” takes place a decade after “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” The technology which created a breed of super-intelligent ape in the San Francisco area also created a virus which has wiped out most of humanity. The apes have built a city of sorts in a redwood forest overlooking the Bay Area, pretty much assuming mankind is extinct.

They find they’re wrong when a party of human explorers stumbles upon a couple of apes in the forest. The first thing one of the humans does, of course, is shoot one of the apes. Way to make friends, humanity.

The apes’ leader, Caesar (Andy Serkis, again broadening the definition of acting), lets the humans go, wanting to avoid some greater conflict. But he has them followed by his dark-hearted lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell), and it turns out there are a great many humans living behind a barricade in downtown San Francisco.

Leading the humans is Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). The explorers were led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Malcolm’s lover, Ellie (Keri Russell). Their mission was to revive the generators at a dam and bring electricity back on line for the city.

Malcolm returns to plead his case before Caesar, and soon enough, apes are helping the humans get the generators working. The hope that apes and humans will be able to peacefully coexist blossoms.

Well, for a little while anyway. It turns out that paranoid and power-hungry Koba doesn’t trust the humans, and many of the humans don’t trust the apes either, blaming them for the virus that wiped out civilization, even though said virus was created by man. Which does sound like a pretty human way of thinking.

The truce does not hold, and following a grim betrayal, Koba leads a gun-toting army of apes against the humans. Dissenting apes are imprisoned, human captors are put in cages, San Francisco becomes mayhem incarnate.

Welcome to the future.

“Dawn” should again set in motion the now annual discussion about what constitutes acting as Serkis is undeniably the center of this film. And even though his movements are covered in computer graphics and his voice is undoubtedly fiddled with, his Caesar is the most sympathetic, anguished and noble character we’ve seen in a blockbuster this year.

If making an ape seem more human than humans isn’t acting, then what is?

The battle scenes here are appropriately astonishing, and the metaphors and questions raised by the decades-long ongoing story hold true — what makes a civilization? What makes a man?

But the visual look of the apes themselves is what brings it all home. Seeing is believing, and the magic of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is that it is so easy to believe.

'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'

GRADE: B+

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language

Running time: 130 minutes

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