There was a time when movie sequels virtually guaranteed diminishing returns. A prime example can be found in the four sequels that followed the original 1968 sci-fi classic Planet of the Apes, none of which can hold a candle to the original (though 1971's Escape From the Planet of the Apes, a satirical tale of time-traveling simians forced to find refuge in a circus, understandably has its proponents). But times have changed for Hollywood sequels. The 2011 franchise reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a worldwide smash, but that science-lab thriller now looks like a mere stage-setter for the far superior Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The film's human characters function as caricatures facilitating a simple story of ape-human conflict in a post-apocalyptic world. But director Matt Reeves (who took over from the previous film's Rupert Wyatt) uses state-of-the-art digital effects to humanize his apes in service of a film that's emotionally engaging beyond all reasonable expectation.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes begins with a newsreel montage showing how the lab-created virus that spread across the world at the end of the previous film decimated humanity, leaving only small pockets of survivors who were genetically resistant to the plague. The story brings us to San Francisco 10 years later, where a small encampment of humans led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is about to run short of electrical power. The only solution is to restart a hydroelectric dam found above the city in Muir Woods, where the apes of the last film have built a fairly high-functioning civilization of their own under the watchful eye of Caesar (Andy Serkis). But the simians are gaining humanlike intelligence at an alarming rate and want nothing to do with their former captors.
Remarkably, the film takes its time pulling us into the rich world of the apes, who communicate eloquently in sign language (with subtitles) and seem far more at peace with their surroundings than the humans. Motion-capture technology has long been used to bring Serkis' performances into the realm of digitally rendered characters, not only in the previous Apes film but also as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and elsewhere. The technique here reaches new heights in the multi-dimensional Caesar and other well-drawn ape characters, all of whom support classic themes such as family, brotherhood and betrayal. When the inevitable battle arrives, the film maintains its higher purposes in a manner seldom seen in summer blockbusters (or Apes movies).
The scale of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes also sets it apart from other movies in the series. Where the last film seemed stuck in the lab, this one combines location footage and computer-generated effects to build vast, detailed outdoor settings. (The vine-covered fortress built for last summer's location shoot in New Orleans' Central Business District serves as the gateway to the film's human encampment.) The ending is designed expressly to support additional sequels, but what else can we expect? This is the one to beat at the multiplex this summer.