In ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,’ chimps are the champs: 3 stars

07/10/2014 8:00 AM

07/10/2014 12:21 PM

The hero of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is reintroduced in close-up, glaring eyes burning through the screen.

His expression suggests anger, resolve and buried sadness. And it’s not real. At least not in the purest sense. Caesar, like his fellow apes, is portrayed by a nonsimian actor in a motion-capture suit (Andy Serkis in this case).

The fact that an action movie could be so flush with digital unreality yet play so effectively with themes of racism, tolerance, war-mongering and survival says quite a bit about the expertise that went into crafting this blockbuster. “Dawn” isn’t just a rousing summer sequel, it’s a testament to Hollywood’s fundamental ability to make something from nothing.

“Dawn” picks up a decade after 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Caesar has taken his rebellion to the perches of Muir Woods outside San Francisco, creating his own society of chimps, gorillas and orangutans.

His commune has enjoyed scant interference from humans, who were nearly wiped out in a Simian Flu pandemic, created when scientists gave Caesar his genetically enhanced abilities. The apes haven’t even seen a human for two years … until a small group crosses their path.

These people are led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), a compassionate architect with a nurse girlfriend (Keri Russell) and teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee — star of “Dawn” director Matt Reeves’ previous film, “Let Me In”). They are searching ape territory for a hydroelectric dam that could help power their own commune back in the city (an incredibly convincing post-apocalyptic San Francisco).

Keep in mind, humans have no idea apes can talk.

What follows is a clash of philosophies from both sides. Although Caesar was raised by loving humans, his lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell) was a lab monkey in “Rise,” and he is scarred both physically and emotionally.

“Scars make you strong,” he explains to Caesar’s son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston).

The human camp also has its share of doubters. The twitchy Carver (Kirk Acevedo) would rather shoot first than negotiate. Back at the compound, idealistic leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is too committed to rebuilding a quality life to risk war with the apes. But he also orders his soldiers to dust off a National Guard armory stockpile just in case.

Reeves and writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback wisely concentrate on the struggles of the internal factions before the inevitable human/ape showdown commences. Fascinating how the apes communicate with a combination of sign language (with subtitles) punctuated by key spoken words. It’s like a surrealist’s nature documentary.

But the whole film also carries the queasy weight of a horror flick. Is there a more unsettling scene this year than when Koba puts two human soldiers at ease by pretending to be a dopey circus animal before taking his revenge?

Just as he did with the underrated vampire remake “Let Me In,” Reeves fills in the edges with solid character performances, often from the apes. (That was the main knock on the otherwise strong reboot “Rise,” with its shaky work from John Lithgow and especially Tom “Draco Malfoy” Felton). It can’t be that easy to make the audience distinguish the personalities of a dozen primates, yet Reeves delivers.

What allows “Dawn” to resonate is what often makes it hard to watch: It’s disheartening to witness the sabotage of sincere attempts at peace between species. This is a movie about characters doomed to failure. A Sisyphus plot.

“Dawn” builds to a finale that is visually spectacular and emotionally affecting, but hardly enjoyable.

‘DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES’

3 stars

Rated PG-13 | Time: 2:10

APES ON THE LOOSE

To immerse audiences in the world of the apes, director Matt Reeves pushed performance-capture technology to new terrain.

Motion-capture movies usually are filmed in a studio, with actors’ performances digitally enhanced by animators and visual effects technicians. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” however, was filmed almost entirely on location, with cast and crew trudging through the sweltering humidity of New Orleans and the freezing forests of Vancouver, Canada, lighting gear and enormous 3-D cameras in tow.

“We’re in the woods; we’re not creating the woods,” said Reeves. “No one has done that yet to the level that we did, so it should have a really distinctive feel and look.”

| Noelene Clark, Los Angeles Times

3-D OR NOT 3-D?

“Dawn” aims for subtlety. The 3-D adds an underlying depth to scenes of tangled forests and decaying cities.

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