Movie Review: ‘Apes’ is a thoughtful adrenaline-pumper

Prime primate: Andy Serkis in
Prime primate: Andy Serkis in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes."

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”
★★★

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is the most thoughtful blockbuster of the summer by far, which doesn’t prevent it from being a thoroughly satisfying adrenaline-pumper.

The only real problem here is that the apes in the cast are so much more interesting than their human counterparts.

That’s not quite accurate, of course, because the featured simians are all played by human actors using digital performance-capture technology — now officially a true marvel.

Particularly marvelous is the astonishing performance of Andy Serkis as Caesar, the intellectually evolved chimp we first encountered in 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Serkis is already famous for enlivening the digitally re-rendered features of cave-dwelling Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and his Caesar easily stole the show from James Franco in “Rise.” Now he’s clearly the star of “Dawn,” with top-billing status to dispel any doubt.

After an armed confrontation with mankind at the end of “Rise,” Caesar led his army of evolved lab-experiment escapees across the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Muir Woods. It’s 10 years later, mankind is presumed extinct after a Simian Flu plague and Caesar presides over a peaceful community of hunter/gatherers in the Marin County forest. The apes communicate with words and sign language, raise their families and life is good until mankind returns to screw things up in typical fashion.

A group of Simian flu survivors led by the initially reasonable-seeming Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) has settled in San Francisco and hopes to use an abandoned power plant in the apes’ territory to restore power. Caesar initially refuses, but eventually relents, partly because of the efforts of human diplomat Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and partly because he knows war could destroy everything his tribe has created.

After tenuous trust is established, the situation seems hopeful until haters in the human community and Caesar’s human-hating second-in-command Koba (Toby Kebbell) decide not to give peace a chance. So the way is cleared for an increasingly spectacularly devastating all-out inter-species war.

With few surprising developments, the plot, which advances along highly familiar lines (“Why can’t we all just get along?”), sometimes goes about it at an unfortunately slow pace. At least “Dawn” has some ideas to chew on, though, including a sort of good-news/bad-news survey of what mankind brings to the table (music, books, electric light and antibiotics, good; guns, bad — very bad).

Director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield,” “Let Me In”) makes excellent use of occasional action set pieces throughout (especially the film’s terrific, opening-scene deer hunt) to offset all the ideological palaver preceding the war.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” makes you earn your adrenal rushes, in other words, and that’s not a bad thing.

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