The realism is remarkable in this superior sequel to the 2011 prequel, and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" advances the series in a captivating way.
Director Matt Reeves ("Let Me In") logically builds on "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" -- it's 10 years later, and set in a believable dystopian northern California, where a group of humans has survived a Simian flu that wiped out most of mankind.
The genetically altered apes are ensconced in the Muir Woods, and wary of man, but Caesar's previous inter-species relationship with James Franco's good scientist has taught him to trust homo sapiens.
An expedition led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) seeks a nearby dam to power their enclave's electrical needs, and a turf situation gets a little scary.
Distrust and danger accelerates into widespread violence. The sight of apes charging on horseback is something to see, and the eye-popping visuals, featuring animals with firepower, are unforgettable and great fun to witness.
Motion-capture characterizations have come a long way, and Andy Serkis ("Lord of the Rings") has been the go-to guy in a number of high-profile projects.
It's easy to see why he's at the forefront of this cinematic development. As Caesar, the wise leader of the apes who can talk and reason, he's striking. You can't take your eyes off of him.
The other prominently featured apes are a little harder to discern, except for Cornelia (Judy Greer) and the wannabe leader Koba (Toby Kebbell), who becomes increasingly militant and menacing as ulterior motives are revealed.
The humans don't make a stronger impact, as this movie really belongs to Ape Nation. So it's disappointing that people are merely stock characters -- mainly separated into the kind folks and the obnoxious jerks.
Gary Oldman chews the scenery as Dreyfus, the unofficial mayor of Survivor San Francisco, a typical arrogant villain with misguided priorities.
Jason Clarke ("Zero Dark Thirty") fares better as the noble negotiator trying to please both sides, for he's easier to relate to, and understand.
Keri Russell plays his benevolent and medically trained girlfriend while Kodi Smit-McPhee ("The Road") is his sensitive teenage son -- the good guys you root for as the apes wage war.
The technological achievements are astounding, and raise the bar for the next one.
The natural movements are so lifelike and detailed, you believe this scenario could actually happen. Nobody looks like a kitschy guy in a monkey suit.
The story is easy to follow, but not too predictable, managing to keep us absorbed from its slick opening montage to setting up the next installment.
What Doesn't Work
While the human characters could have been fleshed out more, the story works better than most summer blockbusters. The entertainment value is strong.
Michael Giacchino's ("Lost") musical score fits the action, for the most part, but then veers into melodrama.
3 1/2 stars out of 4
Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language.