There’s a good chance you never knew you needed to witness the sight of an angry ape charging on horseback, double-fisting a pair of machine guns. But trust me, you do. Although Jane Goodall might disagree, that showstopping sequence of lead-spraying primate mayhem is just one of the many giddy pleasures in Matt Reeves’ surprisingly rollicking and resonant Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — a sequel that easily tops its 2011 predecessor. Picking up 10 incident-stuffed years after the James Franco-led first film left off, Dawn sets the stage as most postapocalyptic movies do nowadays: with a helter-skelter montage of dire news reports informing us that humanity has been nearly decimated by a virulent strain of simian flu and that cities such as San Francisco, where the film is set, have been reduced to overgrown piles of rubble and ruin.
But while Earth’s human population isn’t doing so hot, the apes are thriving. Caesar, the cute chimp raised by Franco in the franchise opener, is now the wise and benevolent leader of his species. He and his gang all live in Muir Woods just north of the city, where they’ve not only learned to read, write, and speak (English, naturally), they’ve also nurtured a healthy distrust of humankind — which is probably smart, considering that the humans have crowned a Caesar of their own (actually, more like a Nero) in Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus, a tin-badge fascist whose mantra seems to be The only good ape is a dead ape. Needing electricity to power their shantytown, Oldman dispatches a group of outdoorsy human ambassadors (including the chimp-athetic Jason Clarke and Keri Russell) to strike a deal with Caesar to let them repair a hydroelectric dam on ape turf. Wariness on both sides leads to betrayal and war, and the movie’s off to the Uzi-toting-ape-on-horseback races. Reeves, whose previous films Cloverfield and Let Me In were stronger on promise than payoff, stages these battles with amazing technical skill and a real painter’s eye. His images, as undeniably silly as they are, are so striking they stick with you — especially a beaut in which a ticked-off ape mans the rat-a-tat turret of a tank.
If only as much care were put into the film’s human characters. Oldman nearly pops a hernia from hamming it up so hard, and Clarke’s melancholy eyes are so perpetually moist in his admiration of the apes, you want to offer a tissue. The one truly great performance belongs to Andy Serkis, whose Caesar is his most soulful motion-capture creation yet. Despite all the obscuring layers of digital trickery, the actor manages to convey an impressive physicality and array of emotions, from hope to grief to rage. I won’t spoil which side wins the interspecies showdown, but when it comes to who does the better acting, the apes carry the day, (hairy) hands down. B+