Add “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” to the list of rare sequels that absolutely obliterate the films that came before them.  “Dawn” is an
intelligent and superbly directed film, and is an upgrade over 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” in every regard.  While “Rise” met the
minimum criteria for what I would label a good film, “Dawn” is a triumphant post-apocalyptic thriller with surprisingly affecting character
drama.  This is especially impressive considering some of the main players are computer generated.

In fact, the entire human cast from “Rise” is dropped for “Dawn.”  You’ll hear no complaints from me.  James Franco and company were the
weakest link in the first film, with the simian revolt led by the super intelligent ape Caesar delivering that film’s most engaging thread.

“Dawn” takes place following the epidemic hinted at in the previous film.  The human-engineered virus that gave apes enhanced
intelligence has spread across the globe and decimated the human population.

The film features an especially chilling opening where the spread of the virus is tracked over a world map while audio from various news
reports leading up to the fall of humanity plays.

Cut to an extreme close up of Caesar as he glares into the camera.  Slowly pulling back, we see that he’s perched in a tree in front of a large
hunting party.  It may sound subtle, but these opening moments set an ominous tone and showcase the film’s incredible visuals, a superb
combination of art direction, cinematography and outrageously good effects and animation.

Director Matt Reeves proves to be a brilliant choice.  Despite his smaller scale credits (Cloverfield, Let Me In), Reeves effortlessly and
confidently helms an epic production, delivering impressive spectacle and action without compromising character drama.

The film also receives another spectacular performance from Andy Serkis, the undisputed king of CG characters.  Caesar may be his best
yet.  Through minimal dialog, Serkis is able to carry the entire film and portray a compelling arc for the Caesar character.

Living in the forest amongst fellow primates, Caesar now has a family.  In addition to the rage so brilliantly portrayed in the last film, we get
to see another side of Caesar.  He has grown into his role as leader and is now motivated by the need to protect his family and species.

Of course, he’s still probably the most memorable when giving those fierce stares.  The character design is exceptional.

Reeves does a brilliant job directing these sequences, and we quickly get over the fact that we are basically watching animated apes for
the bulk of the film.

But while humanity may be crippled in this steely gray future, they are not extinct.  A small group of humans run into the apes while trying to
reactivate a dam and restore power.  The confrontation ends with an ape being shot.

While these humans may be a mere band of survivors, they still control the firearms, making them a serious threat.

Caesar, along with human leaders Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) attempt to maintain peace between the two sides, but
all it takes are a few troublemakers on each side to create chaos.

An ape named Koba (a test subject of human experimentation) wants to eradicate as many humans as possible.  He manipulates both the
apes and the humans into conflict, even attempting to assassinate Caesar.  Et tu Koba?

Then there’s Kirk Acevedo’s Carver, who brings a gun into the ape territory after Caesar explicitly makes that a condition of allowing the
humans to enter the dam.  He blames the apes for the viral outbreak.

The film draws many parallels between the apes and humans.  Malcolm and Caesar bond through their shared desire for peace, mercy and
loyalty to family.  We also see how the need for revenge consumes others, and destroys everything in its path.

Caesar’s guiding principal is that apes don’t kill other apes.  This time, however, Caesar is forced to see that apes are not the innocent
victims, and many are all too eager to participate in the violent and oppressive behaviors that he rebelled against in the previous film.

“Dawn” takes great care in illustrating the motivations of its characters.

This intelligent approach, along with its engaging plot and foreboding atmosphere, easily elevates the film far above the typical summer
blockbuster.  It even outdoes most of those with its superlative visual effects and thrilling action sequences.  (Apes on horses with guns;
does it get any better than that?)

Sound editing and mixing are excellent as well, as is Michael Giacchino’s score.  Giacchino adds enormously to the film’s emotional punch
during those introspective character-driven scenes, while also unleashing some outrageous percussion and a roaring theme for Koba’s
menacing presence.

The only slight shortcoming is that the film’s resolution isn’t transcendent enough to push it into four-star territory.  It’s very good to be
sure, but comes up just shy of greatness.

“Dawn of the planet of the Apes” is an exceptional film that combines character and emotion with stunning spectacle.  Regardless of your
opinion of the previous film, this sequel is a totally different beast and is highly recommended.

* * * ½
(out of four)

Directed by: Matt Reeves

Written by: Mark Bomback and Rick Jaffa & Amanda

Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri
Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo

Cinematography by: Michael Seresin

Music by: Michael Giacchino

Released: July 11, 2014; 130 Minutes