"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" was a surprise late-summer hit in 2011, serving as a prequel to the classic sci-fi "Planet of the Apes" film about a team of astronauts who travel to the future and return to find that apes have become the dominant species on the planet Earth. A thought-provoking, emotionally resonant plot and impressive motion capture work elevated it above the shameless, cash-grabbing reboot it easily could have become, and it earned praise from critics and viewers. The good news is, the sequel — "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" — is even stronger, balancing its lifelike special effects and action set pieces with reflections on what it means to be human.
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" takes place a decade after the previous film; an opening montage quickly catches audiences up to date about how a virus has devastated most of planet Earth and brought about the collapse of human society. A colony of humans struggling to survive in the post-apocalyptic streets of San Francisco decide to venture out into the wilderness to try to repair a hydroelectric dam that could generate power. In the forest, they discover a complex society of highly-intelligent apes who are becoming increasingly human-like (due to experiments performed on them in the first film). The ape society is led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), a chimpanzee who has gained the ability to speak.
Although Caesar forms a tenuous agreement with the humans, allowing them to work on the dam, not all of the humans and apes are certain they can trust each other. A betrayal threatens to lead both sides to war and end the humans' hope for returning to the life they once knew on Earth.
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is an unconventional summer blockbuster, but that's part of what makes it refreshing. Although there are long periods without spoken dialogue (most of the apes communicate by sign language, which is translated in the captions), the film still holds viewers' attention, thanks to life-like motion capture work by Andy Serkis and other performers as the ape characters.
Serkis has established himself as a leader in motion capture work, and that recognition is well-earned. Though the animators deserve plenty of credit for creating the CGI apes that blend seamlessly with the live-action film, Serkis adds the subtle layers of emotion that make Caesar a fully-realized character. He is the most "human" of the apes, and the one that struggles the most over the conflict that erupts between the two cultures.
One of the film's most interesting themes is the development of the ape society, and how more problems arise within the society the more "human-like" the apes become. With higher levels of intelligence come good traits, such as compassion and appreciation for family and friends, but the apes also discover the darker side of humanity is starting to manifest itself in their own culture: power struggles, lies, jealousy and revenge.
Another interesting thing about the film is that it doesn't necessarily pick sides; there are good humans and bad humans, good apes and bad apes. Some see the war between the species as regrettable but unavoidable, while others see it as an opportunity to shift the balance of power. While one could argue that the apes are actually the main characters in this film, among the humans Jason Clarke is a standout as a leader who develops a friendship with Caesar.
Although the film's open ending is obviously paving the way for a sequel, I think the ambiguousness also fits well with the tone of the film. It gives audiences space to think about our own strengths and weaknesses as a society and where we might head in the future. The movie does exactly what good science fiction should do: both entertain and enlighten.