It starts with the eyes. And ends there as well.
For “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the eyes are a great place to start — and end.
The eyes belong to Andy Serkis, the tremendously talented actor whose lot in his best-known movie roles is to have his body digitally erased and replaced with the forms of various creature characters: King Kong. Gollum. And in 2011’s “Rise of Planet of the Apes” and now in its sequel, “Dawn,” the majestic alpha ape Caesar.
Thanks to the miracle of motion-capture technology, Serkis has been transformed into a startlingly real-looking simian. But gazing out of Caesar’s ape face are the actor’s expressive eyes, conveying deep intelligence, regal authority and grave compassion, all with great subtlety. When director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”) goes in for close-ups, the effect is spellbinding. You can’t take your eyes off those eyes.
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The picture picks up 10 years after the events in “Rise.” A man-made virus dubbed the simian flu has escaped from a lab, wiped out most of humanity and left hyperintelligent apes who were experimented on in that same lab to build a peaceable society in the rainy depths of Muir Woods, north of San Francisco. The place is an Eden, lush and green. And serving the function of the fatal apple in this Eden is the gun.
A human intruder shoots an ape early on, and that shooting infects the wounded ape’s father, Koba (Toby Kebbell), with a raging desire for payback. A raid on the humans’ armory in San Francisco supplies him and his followers with plenty of guns. Eden will be overthrown.
The simian characters have their mirror images in humanity’s survivors. A man played by Jason Clarke is Caesar’s equivalent, a thoughtful peacemaker. Like Caesar, he has a wife and an adolescent son. Koba’s opposite is the leader of the humans (Gary Oldman). He wants to exterminate the apes and reassert humanity’s primacy in the post-plague world.
They are us and we are them, in other words.
Caesar and Clarke’s character represent the hope for coexistence. Koba and Oldman’s character represent hostility born of fear.
Reeves directs with great dynamism, and his scenes of masses of apes swinging through treetops and swarming through San Francisco streets are rousingly staged. However, late in the movie, that dynamism trumps the early thoughtfulness with battle scenes that are explosive but also a little too generic.
“Planet of the Apes” movies — both those in the original series that launched in the late ’60s and in the current iterations — view humanity with deep-seated pessimism, posing the question, “Can’t we all get along?” The movies answer: No.
Soren Andersen: firstname.lastname@example.org