The reaction in the past week to “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” has been equal parts encouraging and depressing. Happily, the movie’s actually pretty good, and audiences, apparently starved for anything that doesn’t salute their intelligence with both middle fingers, turned out in droves. The damn dirty apes blew it up at the box office, raking in more than $100 million worldwide. And much of that was deserved: In its effects, plot, tone and action, “Dawn” is a fine sci-fi flick. The quickest praise to offer might be it’s an epic with meaningful intimate moments, and it convincingly creates a world where the actions of one or two characters will determine the fate of multiple societies. Also, fun apes.
Yet none of these things should be extraordinary! There was a palpable sense in the theater where I saw “Dawn” that the movie had outstripped expectations. It was a Friday night show, one where people arrive early for decent seats and wind up gabbing and dinking around on their phones. Then, through the 130-minute feature, nary a peep. People didn’t leave in a post-traumatic daze, bludgeoned into mute submission by superheroes or Transformers or exploding alien ships.
This was hardly a perfect movie; some of the time elements just don’t make sense and, for a crafty band of survivors who endured an apocalyptic plague that wiped out 499 of every 500 people on the planet, the humans tend to make stupid decisions. Still, as a summer potboiler, this doesn’t feel like a waste of 10 bucks. Too often the same cannot be said for its competitors.
Andy Serkis, the biggest movie star no one ever sees, is back as Caesar, an ape made hyperintelligent by experimental dementia drugs in the previous film. (That was “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” confusingly synonymous with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”) He and his ape clan, a decade after the aforementioned epidemic, are situated nicely among some Ewok-grade treehouse digs in a forest north of San Francisco. All seems peachy till some stray humans stumble into their territory and, ‘murica, pop a cap into one of the juvenile apes. The apes, not amused, ride into town and tell the humans, from horseback, not to return to the apes’ zip code, under penalty of spearing.
But because the humans are running out of fuel and need to jimmy a hydroelectric plant near the apes, confrontation looms. Jason Clarke does a fine job as a levelheaded peacemaker who brokers permission to take his crew into the woods and give the dam plan a chance. Meanwhile, his fellow colony leader Gary Oldman has determined that the dam is so essential, it’s worth going to war over, if need be. A suspicious, bellicose ape named Koba (played by Toby Kebbell, like Serkis, fully obscured in seamless visual effects) finds the humans prepping for war, and palace intrigue ensues.
Matt Reeves (“Let Me In,” “Cloverfield”) directs with an eye for lighting and a keen sense of pacing. A presumable weakness of “Dawn” — that most of its characters, even the primary ones, communicate only in simple thoughts, and slowly at that — proves something of a strength. Unlike most political thrillers, there’s not a lot of yakkity-jabber going on here. The sentiments are straightforward, and the themes, basic. Trust. Family. Risk. Aggression. Apes.
This could easily have been a $170 million hangdog sequel. Instead, it gives the audience a modicum of credit and, because it’s an attempt at real cinema, arrives like a glass of cool water. It is a good movie that, in July, is destined to set the curve for blockbusters.