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Wherever you imagined the resurrected Planet of the Apes franchise might go following the downbeat conclusion of 2011’s surprise hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you still will not be prepared for the scope, intelligent vision and accomplishment (both technical and emotional) of the superior, intense, terrifying, exhilarating and altogether spectacular sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Though we are only two moves in to this reconfigured Apes franchise – and we have a long way to go before reaching the point of introduction that occurred way back in 1968 – its evident that there is ample life and innovative storytelling in the Apes series, which should pave the way for a bleak but creatively (and financially) bright future.

That’s an odd thing to say about a nearly 50-year-old film franchise that currently takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where human beings are the tattered members of a decaying minority, perched on the brink of a war we’d have no chance of winning. As you may recall, Rise of the Planet of the Apes concluded with the global spread of a simian virus, promising a gradual cleansing of our species from the planet. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up the pieces 10 years after the events of Rise, and passes the baton to a brilliant filmmaker named Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In), one of many smart decisions made during the production.

Reeves and his team of screenwriters (which include Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback) welcome big political and social ideas into their science-fiction premise -- astounding since the director notoriously took the reigns on Dawn after Rise director Rupert Wyatt balked at the sequel’s hurried production schedule. The director wisely chooses to start his movie with a lengthy and nearly-wordless sequence in the ape community, where Caesar (Andy Serkis, mastering his motion-capture techniques) has established a peaceful existence. The apes communicate through sign language, reflecting on their new lives and reminiscing about the humans, who they assume died out after multiple, long winters.

If only that were the case. Dawn kicks into second gear when a band of exploring humans from nearby San Francisco stumble on Ape Town and cause harm to young Ash (Larramie Doc Shaw). Caesar, who has evolved his speech and now uses unbroken English, orders the humans to leave. But the deep rift has been established, and several members of the ape community – led by the aggressive Koba (Toby Kebbell) – want to retaliate while the powerful apes still hold the upper hand.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is filled with incredibly powerful and distinct personalities – remarkable considering so many of its performances are digitally created. It helps, of course, when it is the geniuses at WETA who are working tirelessly behind the scenes to enhance the performances of amazing actors like Serkis, Kebbell, Terry Notary (Rocket), Judy Greer (Cornelia) and Nick Thurston (Blue Eyes) as the main apes in Reeves’ story. Make no mistake: The digital apes seen on screen are legitimate “actors” now, capable of connecting with us on emotional levels that are groundbreaking and jaw-dropping. Reeves helps the process along, adopting physical techniques seen in silent films and foreign efforts to establish alternate means of communication when straight dialogue isn’t possible. There are long passages of Dawn that need no words to convey the sentiment, and it’s astounding how far the mo-cap technology has advanced when it comes to creating tangible characters with which we easily can sympathize and empathize.

Dawn would be a triumph if it only focused on the apes, and how they are adjusting to life in an embryonic society. But Reeves places as much focus on the human survivors of the devastating virus, and populates that part of the cast with incredible talents (even as they play recognizable caricatures from a post-apocalyptic drama). Jason Clarke plays the level-headed but unsure leader Malcolm, a man who’d like to re-establish power and resources to his decimated headquarters but has no interest in engaging Caesar and his troops in physical combat. The fiery and distrustful Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) has other motives. His distrust of the simian rivals mirrors the contempt felt by Koba, and there are numerous connections Reeves wants his audience to make between the dilemmas facing both the ape and the human factions.

Didn’t this rebooted franchise start as a James Franco vehicle? How did we come so far, so fast?

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes bests its immediate predecessor on every level. If Rise was a chapter in the lengthy Apes story, Dawn is a complete book, with multiple messages and lessons about multi-cultural co-existence, political lessons about managing fears in precarious situations, and thrilling action set pieces that expand the narrative. Dawn boasts some of the finest and most intricate special effects that we have seen on screen all summer. (Look for an extended scene from Koba’s point of view atop a tank turret in the middle of a battle. It is a graceful, chaotic commentary on a long-brewing war, and is one of the most eye-poppingly beautiful accomplishments I’ve seen in a movie all year.)

Apes isn’t exactly the kind of light, fluffy, escapist entertainment Hollywood often programs for the dog days of summer. Critics frequently advise crowds to “turn off their brains” when it comes to conventional popcorn flicks. The opposite holds true for Dawn. This groundbreaking, challenging and immensely rewarding sequel offers audiences a veritable feast consisting of mature science-fiction themes, complex emotional performances (both human and digital), and riveting combat set pieces. Dawn both honors the history of the popular franchise while also setting the table for future chapters in the saga that, honestly, can’t get here soon enough.
8 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed star rating out of five
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