***1/2 (out of four)
Unlike many summer blockbusters, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is not a lazy spitball on a studio executive’s wall. With this sequel, director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”) has followed the just-OK 2011 franchise reboot with a spectacular action film that boasts both awe-inspiring visuals and thoughtful storytelling. It’s as refreshing as the engrossing, 3-D rain that falls steadily over post-ape-ocalyptic San Francisco throughout the film.
“Dawn” begins 10 years after its predecessor with a generic montage of chaos and barricades as news reports chronicle a plague of “Simian Flu,” warning everyone of rising death tolls and disintegrating social standards. The out-of-context clip of President Obama telling people to seek shelter was not, as far as I can recall, taken from his reaction to a real-life animal invasion.
As odd as it may sound to say that a story about an army of super-smart apes doesn’t feel contrived, “Dawn” doesn’t. There’s logic and clarity in the misunderstandings and distrust that develop between the surviving humans who are immune to the illness and the intellectually enhanced primates, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis). Anyone seeking a non-stop, winner-take-all war between species will be disappointed, however. Bullet-riddled exchanges smartly take a backseat to enthralling fist-fights between apes and tense philosophical exchanges between human leaders Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman).
At no point does an explosion hurl debris toward the screen for the sole purpose of making the audience jump. There’s no “that gorilla came out of nowhere!” moment intended to surprise. Instead, rain trickles and pours over the very convincingly created CGI apes, whose facial expressions are so meticulously generated (through motion-capture technology) they seem as real as the eye-popping, multi-dimensional forest around them.
Yes, it’s difficult to buy an ape picking up automatic weapons and firing them accurately while riding a horse without any training (wherever one is supposed to train for that). And why does one person still use an iPad when the last movie established that humans have the technology to travel to Mars?
Still, none of the action is superfluous and no character’s behavior is one-dimensional. It results in a sequel that stands on its own and sets up a third installment that actually deserves to be anticipated.
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