Every 3-D scene in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" screams epic. Actually, more than epic.
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"★ ★ ★
Starring: Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Andy Serkis, Judy Greer, Kodi Smit-McPhee
Directed by: Matt Reeves
Other: A 20th Century Fox release. Rated PG-13 for language, violence. 130 minutes
A fiery sequence set in a hellish San Francisco conjures up a burning Atlanta from "Gone With the Wind."
An ape army invasion recalls the fantastically realistic ground warfare from "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
Then, perhaps the greatest praise, "Dawn" juxtaposes the sweeping scope and intimate drama of a pilot for a spectacular new AMC miniseries.
It's that impressive.
"Dawn" picks up exactly where 2011's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" ended, with the planet succumbing to an accidentally released, man-made anti-Alzheimer's virus that makes apes super smart and kills humans super dead.
"Rise," directed by British writer Rupert Wyatt, melded smart science-fiction with great affection for Franklin Schaffner's original 1968 feature "Planet of the Apes."
Married writers and co-producers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver peppered their fun screenplay with loving homages to Charlton Heston's simian adventure, using the original actors' names for characters and seamlessly integrating familiar 1968 dialogue into the script.
Jaffa and Silver also wrote "Dawn" (along with Mark Bomback), and you'd never guess the same people created both sequels.
The light pop references vanish in "Dawn," replaced by a grim and somber, none-too-subtle war movie constantly touting the bleak theme of the inevitability of racial violence, human or otherwise.
In the tall forests outside of a deteriorated San Francisco, teeming with vegetation and rust, the now-adult Caesar (once more performance-captured by amazing physical actor Andy Serkis) rules his simian followers with justice and compassion.
Ten years have passed since the apes have seen humans. Apparently, none has ever bothered to cross the Golden Gate Bridge, for an ape would have discovered a thriving population of people who have genetically dodged the viral bullets.
From the get-go, tensions between the apes and humans run hot and high.
Good guy Malcolm (Jason Clarke) tries to broker a peace with the apes, hoping they will allow him and his fellow humans, such as Gary Oldman's bland former peace officer Dreyfus, to reactivate a power generator at a dam located in the apes' jurisdiction.
Caesar, suspicious of humans (remember the terrible stuff that happened in "Rise"?), allows it, over the loud and rabid protests of his warmonger subordinate Koba (Toby Kebbell), a scarred and dead-eyed character we can tell will soon be up to malevolent monkey business.
"From humans Koba has learned hate," Caesar explains, "but that is all."
Caesar is a family ape with a wife, an adolescent son and a wide-eyed newborn.
Malcolm lost his wife, but has found companionship with a medic Ellie (Keri Russell), a mother figure to his artistic adolescent son (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
Both leaders share a common belief in cooperation and mutual respect. But as if stuck in a sci-fi Shakespearean tragedy, Malcolm and Caesar suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous ambition, intolerance and betrayal.
In this movie, guns don't kill people. They kill peace and common sense. "Dawn" bluntly argues that guns decrease both the IQs and reflective processes of those who carry them, and it's not a single-species phenomenon.
Director Matt Reeves, who gave us the effective, low-budget found-footage horror tale "Cloverfield" plus the English remake "Let Me In," handles "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" with great confidence and verve, constantly re-tightening the narrative tension even as the movie threatens to lumber into an almost too-lengthy 130 minute running time.
The computer-generated apes in 2011's "Rise" still looked a bit photo-unrealistic in spots. Here, the apes have the stronger personalities and better-written parts. (Clarke seems affable enough, but fades into the 3-D foliage in scenes with Serkis' dominating, scowling Caesar.)
"Dawn" succumbs to pretentious slow-motion action shots that merely prolong the running time. It dabbles in superhero dumbness now and then (Caesar almost dies from a bullet wound and yet, 36 hours later, is rumbling like an Olympic athlete).
Still, here's a bolder, more passionate and audacious movie than Wyatt's "Rise," and an exotic reaffirmation of the human condition, now aped by members of the wild kingdom.