So why does the movie feel so dull and pedestrian? Unlike 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which took more than an hour to explain how these chimps developed human intelligence and the capability to speak before setting them loose on the world, Dawn jumps right into the thick of things, starting 10 years after the end of the first film. The simian flu has wiped out most of the Earth’s human population. A group of well-armed survivors immune to the disease have built a fortified camp in San Francisco, where they lead relatively comfortable lives, under the circumstances.
In the wilderness near the city, the apes have also built a cozy place for themselves. Led by Caesar (played by Andy Serkis, the king of motion-capture technology), the animals live in a big condo building made out of trees and stone, hunt wildlife for food and lead a near-human existence (Caesar’s wife is pregnant and about to give birth). They communicate via speech, sign language and, when necessary, bared fangs. Neither group knows of the existence of the other until a team of humans travels into ape territory to repair a broken dam to provide their settlement with electricity.
The expedition group is a ragtag band: A widower (Jason Clarke), his girlfriend (Keri Russell), a teenager (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and a super annoying guy (Kirk Acevedo) whose only purpose is to complain and whine and constantly cause trouble. Together, the group has all the personality of the ensemble cast of The Walking Dead minus 1,000. Even the leader, played by the always-entertaining Gary Oldman, comes off as an ape-phobic bore.
When man and ape first meet face to face, everything goes surprisingly well, until someone pulls out a gun and gives the animals a reason not to trust the homo sapiens (the NRA will definitely not like this movie, although it may enjoy all the firearm porn in the film, which includes lots of semi-automatic weapons and an awesome tank). There is treachery afoot in both ranks, which leads to escalating tensions that finally result in war. Director Matt Reeves ( Cloverfield, Let Me In) has a way of shooting sprawling action that allows you to take it in via 360 degrees, with long shots and inventive camera setups. He’s a great craftsman, and he has a terrific eye. But the script by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback makes the same mistake the previous Apes film made: Although this time the focus is on Caesar instead of James Franco, the movie still feels sluggish and long-winded, taking forever to get to situations that are telegraphed way in advance.
Enough cannot be said of Serkis’ performance as Caesar, who manages to express a huge range of emotions with little dialogue (you always know what he’s thinking). But he’s the emotional focus of the film, not the humans, and relating to a computer-generated animal that relieves itself in the woods is hard (I did however often wonder how bad that ape village must smell). In an era where films are increasingly shot on green screen soundstages, the movie has a tactile, on-location feel, and there are instances of humor, such as a scene in which an ape pretends to act like a buffoon in order to relieve two guards of their rifles.
Watching an army of apes riding horses heading into battle is undeniably cool, but that’s the only thing the movie gives you: Neat eye candy. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is written at a level so low, even 8- year-olds will find it lacking, and because another sequel is already in pre-production, there’s not much suspense as to how this one is going to end. The opportunity to make a comment on tribalism or wartime occupation or the fragile nature of peace are all outside the reach of this cartoonish film. The key to 1968’s Planet of the Apes was watching Charlton Heston interacting with his captors in a world that had gone topsy-turvy and learning the rules of that strange society. In Dawn, you just sit through the boring talking parts and wait for ape mayhem to break loose, which it does (complete with a climactic giant explosion, of course). But it’s too little, too late. There’s so much potential here left on the table in favor of popcorn thrills, I’m already dreading the inevitable Day.