By NICO SALVATORI
At some point early into "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" - the rousing, political sequel to "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (2011) - the tactile presence of the simian characters becomes a moot point. The technical wizardry that brings the apes to life on screen has advanced so far that we are left to marvel at the drama, the characters, the themes and the tragedy.
Shown are Keri Russell, Kirk Acevedo and Jason Clarke in a scene from “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”
Shown are Caesar and Koba from “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”
Exactly when and where that transition takes place is the film's genius, reflecting the metaphors of man as ape and ape as man. But by the time it does, this world is established. When the first of the few remaining human characters appears, it's jarring, almost frightening. This creature doesn't belong - and for the rest of the film, the dynamics of that feeling constantly shift as apes and humans fight each other for survival while a few on both sides seek to coexist peacefully.
That conflict began in "Rise," when a simian flu was introduced that threatened to wipe out the human race. The events of "Dawn" take place about 10 years later and the only humans left are genetically immune to the virus. Caesar (Andy Serkis), the reasonable leader of the troop of intelligent, talking apes, has made a home for his kind somewhere in the wilderness.
His journey from being a caged science experiment to the savior of his race was detailed in "Rise." He's seen both the good and bad of humanity and is willing to accommodate it, but Koba (Toby Kebbell), an ape who was once tortured by humans, feels Caesar's tolerance is misplaced. This tension comes to a head when a small band of survivors makes a deal with the apes to access a dam on ape territory that will generate power.
Koba, constantly seeking to undermine Caesar's power and authority, sets in motion irrevocable misunderstandings between the two races as well as scenes of shocking violence. Director Matt Reeves frames the betrayal slowly.
His masterful command of sightlines and point-of-view sets an uneasy tone that foreshadows the end of a civilization. Played out in private conversations and surreptitious missions, Koba's plotting culminates in grand destruction and mythic tableaux of dystopia: raging fires, derelict buildings, a massive exodus.
Reeves isn't enamored of his violent images; rather, he's disgusted by them. So when towering structures crumble in "Dawn" - as they are inclined to do during the summer movie season - it actually means something. The film's pro-disarmament message, suggesting that the very presence of weapons invariably leads to violence, manifests itself in a climax whose carnage is never gratifying, only tragic. When an ape takes command of a military tank or wields a machine gun, it's not silly, because it's so easy to believe. Reeves and his collaborators clearly find war repulsive and put the blame on both sides, by setting up parallels between Koba and Caesar and several human characters.
For a film featuring talking apes, "Dawn" is startling for its humanity. So far, it's the best blockbuster of the summer.
4 stars out of 4.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action and brief strong language.