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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the summer's best blockbuster so far

That's Andy Serkis somewhere underneath all those computer graphics.
That's Andy Serkis somewhere underneath all those computer graphics.
20th Century Fox
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In a world in which essentially anything that can be imagined by a screenwriter or director can be depicted onscreen if the price is right, the natural evolution of the blockbuster has been toward world-shattering stakes. Invariably, the climax of a big studio summer release involves the characters saving the world (or at least humankind), and the explosive denouement usually involves averting millions upon billions of deaths.

Yet this goes against the rules of not just good storytelling but good blockbuster storytelling, where the dramatic stakes often work best when they’re life-sized. Indiana Jones just wants to get the treasure and the girl. Jaws boils down to a man versus a shark. Even The Dark Knight ends with a scenario where, sure, a lot of people will die, but not the whole world. Yet in recent years, even the good blockbusters have been less and less interested in keeping the stakes life-sized. It’s always an alien invasion or a supervillain or a giant monster. It’s never just one guy versus another guy.

What makes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the superb sequel to the already enjoyable first chapter in the latest reboot of the venerable talking chimps franchise, work is the way that it spends almost its entire running time avoiding becoming a typical blockbuster. Massive battles are teased, then averted. Characters seem like they might come to blows, and then they don’t. War seems inevitable, until man and ape strike tentative peace. It often seems like the unlikely cure to the common blockbuster.

Yet throughout it all, director Matt Reeves, working from a propulsive script by Matt Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, maintains an impressively slow-building tension that seems as if it’s about to boil over for roughly the entire back half of the movie. Dawn keeps one eye on that inevitability at all times. We’ve seen the original Apes movies. We have a pretty good idea where all of this is heading. That doesn’t make it any less excruciating to be headed there.

A World Already Ended

Perhaps Dawn has such an easy time keeping its stakes life-sized because the world has already ended. The deadly virus that broke out at the end of the first film has successfully whittled humanity down to a handful of struggling colonies, eking out a meager existence off the table scraps left by the billions who died. Dawn centers on the first contact and growing conflict between a small group of survivors hoping to restore consistent electrical power to the ruins of San Francisco and the band of intelligent apes that escaped into the Muir Woods at the end of movie one, led once again by troubled revolutionary Caesar (Andy Serkis, in yet another tremendous motion-capture performance that will show up on his inevitable honorary Oscar highlight reel).

It’s too simplistic to suggest this film is about man versus ape. There are factions

within both groups that long for a brokered peace, just as there are factions that will never trust the other and long for pre-emptive war. The first Apes film in this new series was about the a budding revolutionary's growing awareness of the need for political action; Dawn is about how hard it is to step back from being battle-ready when the enemy has been so successfully demonized.

The movie actually opens in the apes’ home, a lovely bit of set construction that suggests someone trying to build a version of the Ewok village that would be appropriate for taller primates. It’s also surprisingly comfortable with spending long stretches of time there, exploring how the apes live without the presence of humans, how they hunt wild game and talk in sign language, or how their society is organized. The apes haven’t seen any humans in two years, and it’s been 10 since the disease broke out. Yet the memories of man’s mistreatment of the apes are fresh. Several of the colony’s original founders were subject to harsh animal testing, which means when a group of humans does appear, the arguments that no man can ever be trusted have more weight to them.

The humans, for their part, are living on borrowed time. The fuel that powers their generators is about to run out, but to get to a dam north of the San Francisco Bay that might provide limited power will require going right through ape territory. Led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke, in an impressively warm performance) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman, at his typical best), the humans adopt a stance that will be familiar to just about any member of this species: hope for peace, but prepare for war. The apes have the numbers, but the humans have the firepower.

The Impossibility of Balance

Above all, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a film about the impossibility of balance, whether it’s between two tribes, between living things and the planet, or between a father and his son. Striking that balance requires patience and empathy, listening to those like Malcolm and Caesar, who would advocate for hope and peace. But living with that balance is ultimately so difficult because of how easily swayed we primates are by fear and by those who would feed that fear, like Dreyfus and the brooding Koba (Toby Kebbell), an ape who has the scars from animal testing to provide a vivid lesson whenever anyone might need convincing that some humans are utterly terrible.

Reeves, who directed Cloverfield and the excellent, unfairly maligned Let Me In, proves a steady hand with this material. He has an excellent command of geography in action sequences, perfectly utilizing the apes’ ability to drop in from out of nowhere to increase the terror of their attacks. He gives post-apocalyptic San Francisco a feel that’s at once eerie and lived-in. These are places that have been re-consumed by nature, but they’re also places people are still trying to survive in. Aided by cinematographer William Seresin, Reeves uses light beautifully, whether it’s the rising sun painting a dying city in radiant color, fire cutting through the forest’s gloom, or a long-lost world briefly resurrecting itself in the dark.

He’s also got a steady sense of how to guide actors to great work via performance capture, to say nothing of how Serkis, Kebbell, and several others are playing apes. The first film had impressive, industry-defining work in this regard, but the second tops it in every way, thanks to starkly believable work from the special effects team at Weta Digital that only slips into the uncanny valley a handful of times.

There are flaws in the film, notably in a supporting cast filled with thinly sketched types. (Malcolm’s teenage son, in particular, is never given enough depth for all the symbolic weight the film tries to hang on him.) But they’re easy to ignore in favor of an experience that builds and builds toward a climax as good as any a movie of this size and scope has come up with in the last decade. Because the world has ended, Dawn understands how precious each and every life is on both sides of its central conflict. A life lived in balance is desired, but a life lived as human ­– or ape ­– demands something must always come along and knock us over.