- - Thursday, July 10, 2014

It’s rare for big-budget, effects-driven film franchises to risk alienating fans by trying something new.

And yet those rare genre sequels that do attempt to expand their worlds and stories often turn out to be some of the most memorable and successful: Movies like “Aliens,” “Terminator 2,” “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan” and “The Dark Knight” took real creative risks — and surpassed their predecessors in the process.

Now we can add another film to that list: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is both a great sequel and a great movie — a film that expands brilliantly on its already strong source material, and makes a case for itself as the best movie of the summer.

“Dawn” picks up shortly after where 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” left off: That film, a sort of prequel to 1968’s “Planet of the Apes” set in the present, ended with a group of intelligent apes, led by a chimpanzee named Caeser (Andy Serkis), forming their own society just outside of San Francisco.

In “Dawn,” they’re still at large, but now the world’s humans are largely gone. Most of the population was wiped out by the same disease that lifted Caesar and his tribe to human-level intelligence.

The movie welcomes viewers to the monkey house from the very first shot, which starts on Caesar’s eyes, and pulls slowly back to reveal an older, wiser, more grizzled version of the young chimp who stole so much of the show in “Rise.” It’s an announcement that this is a movie made from his perspective, about the coming of his world — and the sad, slow end of ours: It’s life after the ape-pocalypse.

There are still a few humans left, of course, and it’s the tense relations between humans and simians that make up the bulk of the movie, which builds its conflict out of an all-too-believably plotted cycle of violence and reprisal.

The reversed perspective is the movie’s best trick, and director Matt Reeves pulls it off almost perfectly, bringing viewers fully into the primitive tribal society the apes have created.

Mr. Reeves, who previously helmed the found-footage monster movie “Cloverfield,” turns out to be a clever and deliberate director of big-budget material, with a knack for moody naturalism and an eye for iconographic imagery.

There’s a hushed, awed, silent-movie quality to the movie’s best scenes that stands out in a summer filled with frantic blockbuster mayhem.

Mr. Reeves is aided by stunning digital animation work from Weta Digital, which created the ape effects over motion-captured human performances.

Some of it is overly ambitious, but there are a surprising number of moments when the ape effects seem to melt away — you forget you’re watching images created inside a computer.

The computers would be no good, however, without the human actors who give the movie’s apes life.

Mr. Serkis, who specializes in these sorts of digitally enhanced performances, makes Caesar the most compelling protagonist of the year, and actor Toby Kebbell gives tribal rival Koba a frightening believability.

The movie’s biggest weaknesses are its underdeveloped human characters, played by Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Gary Oldman, among others.

Story Continues →