"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" evolves past predecessor

Dawn of the Planet of the ApesGrade: B

After 45 years and seven movies of the "Planet of the Apes" franchise, you would think that they've run out of steam. With the one dimensional leading characters and wooden acting in the last film, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is better than it has any right to be.

At the end of the previous film, the reboot of the franchise led by Andy Serkis's CGI motion capture portrayal of simian leader Caesar, the evolved apes unintentionally spread a virus dubbed the "Simian flu" by what remains of the humans. In this new film, the immune humans are running out of power, forcing them to cross paths with the evolved apes, who now seem to have adopted the hunting and gathering lifestyle reminiscent of Hollywood's idealization of Native Americans complete with warpaint in the Muir Woods north of San Francisco.

The focus of the film lies on the conflict between Caesar's diplomacy towards humans, due to his upbringing by James Franco's character in the original, and his second in command, Koba, who thanks to experimentation forced on him in pre-evolved captivity by humans, is extremely distrusting not only of humans but of Caesar's sympathy for them.

The humans in this movie play typical roles, the kind-hearted hero (Jason Clarke), the well-meaning doctor (Keri Russell), disenfranchised teen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and bull-headed militarized leader (Gary Oldman). Thankfully they are only there to serve their purpose which is to drive the main conflict forward.

There have been a good deal of reviewers that compared this movie to Shakespearean drama, and the film seems to strive to that level. The obvious links to the Bard's "Julius Caesar" are evident , with Koba acting as a vicious mix of Brutus and Cassius in one and Caesar's adolescent son Blue Eyes filling the role of Marc Anthony to some degree. In a direct echo of the play, Koba argues about Caesar's weakness and attributes his sympathies to an inability to lead.

Koba acts as the tribe's own military leader, which of course means he will ignore all attempts at peace and drive the conflict, which can also be said of Oldman's character. Each side has their analogous types, and fear pushes each into conflict, despite the darnedest attempts of all of those on the side of civility.

The fear most played on throughout the film is that of progeny. The apes witness a birth of another of Caesar's offspring, and Blue Eyes's growth  through adolescence  is explored better than any annoying, whiny teenager in just about any tv show or movie. The idea of protecting and guiding the younger generations is vital to the apes, as shown through their schooling and sheltering them during the battle scenes. On the human side, some of the most moving scenes involve sequences where characters remember their  youths lost to the virus and the collapse of civilization.

"Dawn" shows other blockbuster films what they can be. Here we have hundreds of apes but we can tell them apart because they have distinct faces, personalities, and even hair differentiation, unlike "Transformers" which features nothing but a mash up of random metals that separate into similar looking beings with the sole purpose of blowing things up.

The audience grows to feel for these characters and what's at stake. Koba is a very malicious ape, but we as the audience still fear for him when he is seemingly caught by humans, we feel for Caesar's wife (played by the inescapable Judy Greer in mostly grunts and moans) when she falls ill after childbirth, and we feel for Blue Eyes when he sees a human for the first time and is fired upon.

The real achievement of this film is how far it pushes CGI  into creating characters, which is where too much CGI usually fails a project's storytelling potential. The CGI here is used to enhance every emotion and action, the most impressive being the naturalistic movements of the apes, particularly Koba. Though most people, like Tim Burton (who's 2001 "Planet Of The Apes" is still a sour memory), would like to think apes express their anger by going bananas or apeshit, the makers of this film did their homework and show how complex apes can be and are.

The score by Michael Giacchino, who has also done the scores for J.J. Abrams's "Star Trek" films, complements the viuals by heavy use of percussive elements which he uses in different parts to play up the drama or  nod to the B-movie past of the franchise. You can tell a conductor enjoys his work when the soundtrack is laced with monkey business puns like "Gorilla Warfare" and "Apes of Wrath."

Director Matt Reeves, of "Cloverfield" infamy, does a solid job, but has some moments where he delves back into some of the disorienting camera moves his previous work was maligned for, particularly during one scene  involving a tank.

The apes do little to no talking in the first third of the film, choosing instead to communicate by American Sign Language. This changes as the need for vocal statements with humans increases and the symbolic evolution into man progresses through the film.

This will undoubtedly be the most successful film of the year in which a large portion of the communication is subtitled. That may in itself make a statement about the American movie going public's refusal to purchase tickets for foreign films, even British English ones. "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes" should be your natural selection at the movies this week.