Combustible Celluloid
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With: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Nick Thurston, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer, Jon Eyez, Enrique Murciano, Larramie Doc Shaw, Lee Ross
Written by: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, based on a novel by Pierre Boulle
Directed by: Matt Reeves
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language
Running Time: 130
Date: 07/11/2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Apes of Wrath

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) was a terrific reboot of a series that had sagged since Tim Burton's rotten Planet of the Apes (2001). But now Matt Reeves takes over with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It's a sequel of a reboot, to be sure, but it may be the finest hour of the entire series.

The last movie was a nifty, clever origin story for the series, but Dawn returns to the roots of the original Pierre Boulle novel by emphasizing the relationship between man and beast, and especially the notion that man has his bestial side, just as the apes have their manly side -- with all that it implies. Reeves (Cloverfield and Let Me In) has proven himself a strong, patient, emotional director of genre films, far better and more talented than his celebrated mentor J.J. Abrams.

Reeves gives us a world set ten years after the previous film. Cesar (played most astoundingly in performance capture by Andy Serkis) lives in Muir Woods north of San Francisco, leading his ape family with a strong, empathetic hand. Meanwhile, a disease related to the chemical experiments of the first film has wiped out much of the human race, and those that remain live in ruins, overgrown with greenery.

Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is among a band of humans that hopes to bring electricity back to the city by kickstarting a dormant dam. He brings his second wife (Keri Russell) and his teenage son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who reads Charles Burns' Black Hole. The humans' leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), mostly remains at the city compound.

Things get off to a rocky start when a human panics and shoots an ape. Cesar, fearing that war will be more destructive than helpful, forgives the humans and lets the go, with the provision that they never return to the forest. But the humans want their power, and Malcolm goes to try to convince Cesar that they can work together. Unfortunately, an ape betrays Cesar and starts a war anyway. (You didn't really think you'd get a peaceful Planet of the Apes movie, did you?)

The amazing parts of the movie, however, are the tentative, awe-struck interactions between Malcolm and Cesar. On a sheer technical level, Serkis' performance is truly outstanding, even if we're looking at a digital version of an actor in a special suit. Serkis' eyes and muscle movements come through clearly, and he's obviously on set with Jason Clarke, in the moment; their eyes meet in a realistic way. Clarke probably has the harder job, pulling off being fascinated, impressed, and respectful; it's a truly tender, open-hearted relationship.

But though many of this summer's movies seem either interested in characters or in fight scenes, Reeves effortlessly handles both. The battle is chaotic but clear, dreadful but spectacular. It contains one memorable, devastating shot of an ape taking over a tank-like vehicle and learning how to fire it himself.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a beautifully-made movie with moments of actual beauty. Yet it contains a brutal commentary on the human race, much as Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone" TV show used to do. Whether apes or men or both, we are capable of greatness and we are capable of evil. Sometimes one can be confused with the other. But perhaps if we take the time to look each other in the eyes, things can become clearer.

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