Dawn of the Planet of the ApesJason Clarke, Andy Serkis, Keri Russell. Directed by Matt Reeves. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday
One of the most frustrating things about 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that it never featured the actual rise of the planet of the apes, so it’s encouraging that by the time Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place, 10 years later, Earth is in fact well on its way to becoming a planet of the apes. That doesn’t mean that the new sequel is any more interesting than the plodding Rise, but at least it does feel a little more urgent. All of the human characters from the first movie are gone, presumably felled by the massive plague that first showed up during Rise’s closing credits and is quickly dispatched before the new movie’s opening credits. A decade later, only a small number of humans survive, while apes have grown more intelligent and more dominant.
The movie opens with nearly 15 minutes of dialogue-free interaction among the apes, who can write and communicate via sign language, but have yet to develop the widespread ability to speak. Head ape Caesar (played via motion capture by returning actor Andy Serkis) wants to create a peaceful society, but his violent rival Koba (Toby Kebbell) is ready to start a war when the apes come face to face with a band of human survivors living in the ruins of San Francisco.
The awkward in-between place of the apes’ development, able to verbalize a handful of words but mostly speaking in grunts and gestures, undermines much of the seriousness of their internal political debates, which are the main focus of the movie for nearly 90 minutes. Not that the human characters (mainly Jason Clarke as a compassionate leader and Keri Russell as his doctor wife) are much more interesting as they too argue over how to deal with the surprisingly clever and well-organized apes. Like Rise, Dawn spends a lot of time on tedious ethical and moral predicaments, but its social commentary remains mostly superficial.
As a spectacle, Dawn takes a long time to get going, but it does deliver some impressive ape-versus-human action when it finally gets there. Once again, the visual effects are outstanding, although the hyper-realism makes it harder to suspend disbelief about talking, strategizing apes (it also makes the ape characters hard to tell apart at times). Dawn is admirable for its efforts to tell a completely new story (as opposed to just dragging out the previous one) infused with social commentary, but those efforts too often amount to very little.