"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is the latest in a series of modern Hollywood action reboots, which aim to transform a campy and droll movie into a gloomy and serious film. The Dark Knight trilogy helped set the precedent for this recent cinematic trend, as Christopher Nolan swapped out caricature villains with dubious motivations for twisted and tortured souls bent on revenge, and exchanged "Holy smokes, Batman!" exclamations with dark, philosophical orations. "Cloverfield" director Matt Reeves' latest film, the second in a series of prequels to the 1968 classic "Planet of the Apes," follows Nolan's lead. In the original film, based off Pierre Boulle's "La Plančte des singes," talking primates carry firearms, ride on horseback and appear in other scenarios designed to at least partially amuse viewers. In "Dawn," we also see apes talk while carrying guns on horseback, but their glowering faces are menacing.
Don't think the film's seriousness is a pitfall, however -- it's appropriate. The film envisions the breakout of a virus that ravages most of humanity and leaves survivors scattered and largely disconnected from each other. The virus results from a drug, designed to cure Alzheimer's, that in 2011's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is used to genetically enhance the intellect of apes that serve as test subjects. The consequences of this drug are staggering. While a human community led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) lives within the ruins of San Francisco in near hopelessness, the apes enjoy near utopian prosperity under the unquestioned leadership of the first genetically modified simian, Caesar (Andy Serkis). When the two communities collide, the natural order comes under threat of even greater disruption.
The film's chief cinematic assets are its apes, portrayed by actors in motion capture suits. Serkis, perhaps most famous for his portrayal of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films, earned Oscar hype for his performance in "Rise" and some believed his exclusion from the Best Supporting Actor category was a snub. Whether performance capture acting merits Academy Award consideration, the performers behind the apes all give compelling performances that contribute greatly to the story. Watching them hunt deer, fight grizzly bears and speak to each other in sign recalls the memory and appeal of silent films. The actors' motions and gestures are supremely artful and New Zealand-based Weta Digital's computer animation is as realistic as it gets.
It is perhaps inevitable that the human characters lack much of the dimensionality and nuance given to their simian counterparts. One exception is Malcolm (Jason Clarke). In his first leading role since "Zero Dark Thirty," Clarke exhibits big-screen charisma as a survivor of the virus who must negotiate with the apes to bring electric power to the human community. The fact that his character -- and Caesar, for that matter -- possesses the name of two Shakespearean characters who struggle against conspiracy and betrayal is surely no accident.
When it comes down to the fighting, Reeves knows how to capture mayhem. In contrast to his use of shaky, hand-held camera work in the alien disaster cult favorite, "Cloverfield," Reeves uses long, steady takes. This allows him to effectively choreograph the acrobatics of the apes. As a result, the film represents a refreshing break from the chaos cinema of many mainstream action features, which seek more to disorient than to entertain.
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" won't waste your time or money, and it succeeds in disturbing viewers because it makes an effort to be plausible. The steps the apes take to acquire power from humans are logical and don't leave behind plot holes. The film plays off the threat terrorists groups pose in the Middle East and reveals how frightening social instability can be. The original film frightened audiences by showing how humans could regress to occupy an order lower than that of apes; "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" updates that fear to the modern age.
Rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi violence and brief strong language. Two hours and 10 minutes.