Apes With Machine Guns? Yes, Please

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Two and a half stars (out of four)
PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, brief strong language)
130 minutes

Those damn, dirty apes are back and as sympathetic as ever, thanks to the wizardry of motion capture technology and another dazzling performance by Hollywood’s motion capture go-to guy, Andy Serkis.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is the sequel to 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (there’s no shame in it if you mix up the titles), a reboot of the cheesy but beloved 1968 classic starring Charlton Heston. I don’t think anyone expected much out of “Rise” — visions of corny rubber ape masks were still dancing in moviegoers’ heads — yet the film proved to be a surprisingly compelling drama, hinging on the tragic but satisfying character arc of the noble simian known as Caesar.

Serkis, famous for his portrayal of Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies, delivered a remarkable, emotional performance as the ape whose metamorphosis from cute baby chimp to savior of his species provides the foundation for “Dawn.”

On the surface, “Rise” was a cautionary tale of reckless genetic research and animal cruelty, but at its heart it was an exploration of the volatile bond between fathers and sons. Aside from its impressive visual effects and a finale in which dozens of angry apes swarmed the Golden Gate Bridge, it wasn’t much of an action movie. “Dawn” is just the opposite, a bang-em-up summer blockbuster that offers geek-pleasing images of monkeys on horseback, their hairy fists brandishing machine guns.

“Dawn” continues the father-son theme with a story built around two pairs of dads and their offspring. There’s the genetically-enhanced Caesar, who left behind adoptive papa James Franco at the end of “Rise,” and now has two sons of his own, including a rebellious teenager who’s constantly questioning his authority.

The setting is post-apocalyptic San Francisco and Caesar is patriarch of a flourishing ape society in the Muir Woods. This treetop civilization may resemble the Ewok village but it’s surprisingly advanced. Its hairy residents have discovered the secrets of fire and developed the ability to read, write and speak.

If the idea of talking monkeys is just too much for you, have no fear. Director Matt Reeves wisely downplays this potentially outrageous element with ape talk that is an easy-to-swallow mixture of sign language and guttural speech.

Caesar’s story parallels that of Malcolm (Jason Clarke), one of the few human survivors of the “simian flu,” the lethal virus unleashed by the very experimentation that triggered Caesar’s evolution. Malcolm has his own teenage boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to look after and is co-founder of a makeshift civilization in what remains of downtown San Francisco.

To thrive, the fledgling outpost needs power, a requirement that sends Malcolm and a small band of humans on a dangerous errand, crossing into ape territory, where they are met with distrust by Caesar’s band. The tentative reunion of man and monkey results in several tense stand-offs, including a clever scene in which a crafty ape uses the stereotypes of his species to quite literally disarm a couple of redneck gun nuts. There’s also a lovable moment involving Smit-McPhee, an orangutan and the graphic novel “Black Hole.”

Caesar and Malcolm may be in favor of diplomacy but the situation escalates thanks to the meddling of their most trusted advisers — the scarred, embittered ape Koba (played by versatile Brit Toby Kebbell) and paranoid military chief Dreyfus (an over-the-top Gary Oldman) — who see violence as the only way forward.

Reeves demonstrated his affinity for idiosyncratic sci-fi with giant monster movie “Cloverfield” and creepy vampire thriller “Let Me In.” He quickly establishes a tone of hushed unease, contrasting striking images of verdant forest and a shattered San Francisco. The director proves up to the considerable visual effects demands of “Dawn,” especially the battle-heavy third act that boasts those soon to be famous shots of apes who are packing.

Inserting hyper-intelligent, talking animals into relatively realistic war scenarios is likely to result in a mixed bag of reactions. It’s a strange sight, which some will find thrilling and others deeply disturbing or at the very least unsettling. For me, the final act of “Dawn” simply drags on far too long as it abandons humanity for apes-gone-bananas action.

Returning screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver and co-scribe Mark Bomback (“The Wolverine,” “Total Recall”) are too enamored with their ape creations to get a good handle on their human characters, so even actors as fine as Clarke and Oldman come up blank.

That’s not at all the case for the film’s computer-generated simian stars. Serkis’ Caesar is still an astonishingly lifelike and — dare we say? — intensely human creation. If anyone deserves to rule the planet based on personality alone, it’s the apes.

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