Good sequels are rare; good sequels to prequels are rare enough that I can't remember the last one prior to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which isn't merely good, it's in some ways outright terrific. In fact, not only is it a more than worthy successor to 2011's surprisingly good Rise of the Planet of the Apes - and I think it's appropriate to point out, though I am not the first to do so, that there's more rising than dawning in the newest movie - it's pretty commandingly the best movie in the sprawling, disconnected franchise since the very first Planet of the Apes in 1968. It's all the more impressive given that Dawn... is in a great many respects an uncredited remake of 1973's Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the worst of the now eight Apes films (yes, worse than than the deadening Tim Burton film from 2001, which at least had some great design and make-up Author's Note, July 2017: I have since thought better of that opinion).

Like that rather glum, under-budgeted affair, Dawn... takes place many years after the event which caused the balance of power to shift away from a human-dominated Earth: the release of a lab-created biological agent called "simian flu" in the media, the exact beat upon which Rise... ended, and upon which Dawn... begins, with one of the very best "montage of news reports" exposition bursts that I have seen in many days, as fragments of talking head segments appear beneath a map of the earth showing the vectors by which the flu spread and also depicting the fading out of lights representing human civilisation, so that at end, when we arrive back where we started on the West Coast of the United States, it's all dark and empty and cold, as Michael Giacchino's score mournful taps out a few dying notes. You can't ask for a more atmospheric opening than that, nor one which more efficiently tells us everything we need to know (not least of the reasons that Dawn... is such a terrific sequel is that it's so good at standing on its own two feet as a completely self-contained narrative).

And so we arrive, ten years after Rise..., to find that the super-intelligent chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans created in that movie have built a primitive but very stable and literate society in the depths of Muir Woods, across the Golden Gate from San Francisco. Led by the first mutant ape, Caesar (Andy Serkis, in a performance that re-writes the rulebook on what you can achieve with motion capture), the apes have no desire to become the dominant species of anything, but simply to live in quiet contentment in their small corner of the world; this becomes untenable when a group of humans - thought extinct for two years now - stumble upon the ape village while in the woods on entirely unrelated business. One of them, Carver (Kirk Acevedo), panics and shoots the juvenile ape Ash (Doc Shaw), and from there on out, everything snowballs: Caesar and the leader of the human expedition, Malcolm (Jason Clarke) are able to put off immediate conflict between the two populations, and even strike a deal for the humans to continue their exploration to find and repair a hydroelectric dam in the woods, the last hope for keeping electricity flowing to San Francisco, which has already devolved into a dead, weed-choked collection of buildings with all the humans clustered into one unfinished skyscraper. But Caesar's apparent second-in-command Koba (Toby Kebbell) refuses to forgive or trust the humans, remembering their horrible treatment of him when he was still a lab animal, and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the leader of the human colony, responds to the discovery that the apes have formed a nascent human-like society by breaking out the stockpiled weapons to make sure they still work, and as is the case, when a population begins to ready for war, it has a tendency to make sure that war will break out.

Mordant stuff, but even at their very worst, the Planet of the Apes films have been more concerned with how to use a population of intelligent simians as a metaphor for how we humans structure our own societies, with all their warts and jerry-rigged alliances (though its vocabulary suggests otherwise, it's always seemed clear that the series is aware that humans are, after all, apes ourselves). And even with its rather bleak outlook on the hopes of peace between distrustful neighbors, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is about as rousing and involving as any summer movie ought to be, not because is packed full of heightened action, but because it makes its action count so much, by basing it so firmly in character rather than raw spectacle.

The film triumphs in making a rich, complex web of characters we admire and characters we despise, but who in both cases always seem to be acting out of an honest internal place rather than because the script needs "heroes", "villains", and "conflict", and this is even more impressive given that the best of them are CGI apes who communicate either with subtitled sign language or grunting, grammatically half-baked English. It is astonishingly nuanced for a big honking summertime movie, with Serkis and Kebbell in particular (along with the small army of technicians turning their performances into CGI characters with amazingly flexible facial expressions) creating such conflicted, ambivalent figures that even as the plot structure insists that Koba must be the Bad Guy and Caesar the Hero, there are shadings within those binaries that go far beyond that. Caesar is not a pacifist, but a realist; Koba is not a slavering maniac, but a deeply wounded, resentful figure. Both have many wonderful moments, a scene in which Koba distracts some gun-toting humans by acting like a daffy circus chimp is a beautifully sad and creepy moment, pure popcorn movie magic.

And having done such a good job of building its characters (the non-human ones; though it's so clearly the "point" that the humans feel kind of undernourished and one-note that I tend to see it as a strength, not a flaw), the film then proceeds on to the business of setpieces and a generally grim and overly-sober worldview, but it feels earned here in a way that it hasn't since The Dark Knight, where the whole "summer movies have to be harsh and not fun" shtick first set up shot. There are sublime moments: the sight of a gas station in the woods coming to life and promising hope and a future; a shot from atop a tank gun turret spinning listlessly and bringing the camera with it, the kind of thing that might sound generically cool for most tentpoles, but is given great depth and drama thanks to the hard, colorless lighting and the moaning score (seriously, Giacchino is up to some great things with the music: looking back to the groundbreaking original, collating modern blockbuster music tropes, tugging at our heart in a most shameless way. I think he might be the single most important person in making the film what it is). Director Matt Reeves finds the exact right mixture here between grandiosity and visual storytelling here in a way that makes for fine, compelling epic filmmaking, and while this is one of the film's best single gestures, it is not the only place where the emotional needs of the moment and the desire to make broad, crowd-pleasing spectacle are satisfied simultaneously. It's a perfectly balanced film, one that escalates things steadily but not with a predictable rhythm, and one that has invested so much in the character drama that even though the climax is a simple one-on-one fight, it feels more visceral and important than all the exploding cities that recent years have thrown at us.

It is, basically a rich film; one of the richest that has come along on a giant studio budget into a prominent summer slot in a long time. I don't suppose that it's necessarily trying to break any new ground; it's more that it's doing extremely well things that are typically only done satisfactorily. But I had an easier time investing emotionally in the film's story, its characters, and its setting (designed, fucking brilliantly, by James Chinlund, and handsomely shot by Michael Seresin) than I've had with a movie of similar market position and aims in a very long time, and for a movie about that time that mutant apes took over the planet, that's an outstanding achievement.

Reviews in this series
Planet of the Apes (Schaffner, 1968)
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (Post, 1970)
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (Taylor, 1971)
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (Thompson, 1972)
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (Thompson, 1973)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Wyatt, 2011)
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Reeves, 2014)
War for the Planet of the Apes (Reeves, 2017)