It's the end of the world as we know it, and the apes feel fine. As for humanity? Not so much, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes doesn't care so much about their feelings. This dawn is well past mankind's twilight.
The excellent 2011 reboot of the Planet of the Apes series ended with a map hinting at the worldwide spread of a man-made contagion. The retrovirus used to make lab apes smart in that film was, it turned out, deadly to humans. A more generic Hollywood franchise might have followed that film up with mankind's collapse, focusing on the chaos of our desperate attempts to keep society intact as the apes grew stronger and smarter and more organized, hidden away in the forests. But this sequel is anything but generic.
In fact, the film skips over the specifics of that collapse almost entirely, only referencing it through an opening credits audio montage of news reports describing society's rapid spiral into radio silence. Then director Matt Reeves, taking over the franchise from Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt, drops us into a now well-established ape society a decade down the line.
What few humans are left are scattered in desperate colonies in the remains of quarantine centers, such as the one run by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) in San Francisco. Things are about to get a whole lot more desperate if they can't get a dam back online to provide power once their fuel runs out, so an exploratory team is sent to check on the dam, led by Malcolm and Ellie (Jason Clarke and Keri Russell).
But that human story is only important inasmuch as it impacts the beings living in the redwoods north of the city, between the humans and the dam. There, Caesar (Andy Serkis), the previous installment's prodigal chimp, leads a massive, thriving ape colony, with classes and leadership structures already intact. Communication is largely via sign language, as only a few of them — Caesar most of all — have yet developed any capacity for speech.
That ends up being the first in a series of gutsy storytelling choices in Dawn of the Planet the Apes, for it means that the opening of the movie — as well as large portions thereafter — has no human characters onscreen, and a whole lot more subtitles than one might expect from a summer blockbuster.
But this is blockbuster counterprogramming to the numbing mindlessness of a movie like Transformers just as surely as the less extensively released Snowpiercer was two weeks ago. Not only that, but even amid strong entries in this summer season like Godzilla and Edge of Tomorrow, it's the first big tent-pole film of 2014 that nails everything from start to finish, blending thoughtful allegory, meaningful science fiction and dazzling action spectacle without a hitch.
That success is built on CGI wizardry that takes the motion capture performances by Serkis and the other actors playing apes, and transforms them into characters that look and feel just as real as the humans. Rarely does any ape seem like anything other than flesh, blood and fur. But as impressive as the technical aspects of the filmmaking are, and the performances of the digitized actors, they never exist as simply eye candy: They're always in service of story.
That story is able to relegate humans to supporting roles because the apes, as the about-to-be-dominant species on the planet, face the same choices as any human society themselves, with regard to how they treat one another, and how they treat their enemies — and what even constitutes an enemy.
If the prior installment dealt allegorically with, among other things, the right to revolution of violently repressed minorities, this one deals just as pointedly with the ethics of war and vengeance, and the rewards of mercy. War isn't just inevitable in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes because it makes for a lot of explosions. It's inevitable because it's the first reaction to fear for both humans and apes; only those able to find trust beyond their fear of the other are able to develop the tools for peace.
That's headier stuff than one might expect for a movie that also features chimpanzees firing dual machine guns while on horseback, or breathtakingly acrobatic hand-to-hand combat atop an unfinished skyscraper. But two chapters into its new life, that's exactly what can be expected from this resurrection of the Planet of the Apes.