*** and 1/2 out of ****
The Louisiana shot Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a sequel to the surprisingly good Planet of the Apes prequel/re-invention Rise of the Planet of the Apes from 2011, is, once again, a surprisingly well-crafted entry with a smart screenplay and top-notch performances. As before, the motion-capture performances by Andy Serkis and the cast of actors portraying the apes are fantastic. The emotional depth that comes through is incredible.
It is several years after the events of Rise. The man-made virus, which apes are immune to and which elevated their intelligence and gave them the ability to speak, has wiped out most of humanity. Ape leader Caesar (Serkis) lives peacefully with his clan deep in the forest. Surviving human Malcolm (Jason Clarke) crosses into the apes' land because he needs to get a dam working to power a city populated by a small band of humans who are struggling to stay alive. Although he is reluctant, Caesar allows Malcolm and his cohorts into the dam.
The best thing about the Dawn screenplay, credited to Mark Bomback with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, is that character motivations aren't in just black and white terms, but shades of gray. Caesar isn't sure he is making the right decisions when it comes to the humans. Caesar's right hand, Koba (Toby Kebbell), has very good reasons not to trust man. In turn, the human survivalist character, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), has his own reasons to be wary of the apes.
Dawn is a boy's game and the weak area of the film is with the female characters - they just don't have much to do. Caesar's mate is ill throughout the film, and when there is chaos in the ape city, we are told - and not shown - that she made it out fine. Keri Russell plays Malcolm's doctor wife Ellie. She stitches up some people as well as some apes, but if you take her character out of the movie, it wouldn't really affect the story. That's a shame, because Russell is a fine actress and deserves to play a stronger character.
That aside, Dawn is a smart action film that moves at a good clip, and is not without some social commentary. It's a sequel that is as good as its predecessor.