[Screen It]


(2014) (Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke) (PG-13)

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Action/Drama: Following the fall of human civilization, a super-intelligent chimpanzee must contend with the arrival of humans as well as a militant ape who wants to wage war against them.
It's been ten years since a man-made viral drug not only enhanced the intelligence of a number of lab apes, including the chimpanzee Caesar (ANDY SERKIS), but also accidentally lead to a pandemic and resulting chaos that decimated human populations around the world.

Caesar now rules a colony of apes living in the woods outside of what's left of San Francisco where one of the main rules is that apes don't kill apes. He lives there with his pregnant wife, Cornelia (JUDY GREER), and teenage son, Blue Eyes (NICK THURSTON), while fellow former lab chimpanzee Koba (TOBY KEBBELL) helps in the hunts for food, and orangutan Maurice (KARIN KONOVAL) teaches the younger apes how to communicate through sign language and writing.

Their peace is shattered when one member of a small human expedition, Carver (KIRK ACEVEDO), ends up shooting one of Blue Eyes' friends in what he claims is self-defense. The apes race to the scene, with Caesar shocking the humans, including the expedition leader, Malcolm (JASON CLARKE), by verbally telling them to leave.

Malcolm not only relays that information to his wife and former nurse, Ellie (KERI RUSSELL), and teenage son, Alexander (KODI SMIT-McPHEE), from his first marriage, but also to Dreyfus (GARY OLDMAN), the leader of a base of humans located in San Francisco. He's concerned about dwindling fuel supplies and thus had sent Malcolm and his team to a nearby hydroelectric dam in hopes of turning it back on.

While Caesar reluctantly grants them a temporary amount of time to accomplish that, Koba is angry about the arrangement, what with his hatred of all things human. As Malcolm and his team try to get the dam operational, Koba's paranoia soon leads to treachery in the name of hoping to wipe out the humans once and for all.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
For reasons that completely escape me at the moment -- exacerbated by an interim of 30+ years -- some of my first few weeks of college were spent impersonating a chimpanzee. Granted, that wasn't a chronic condition (I'm sure it wouldn't have gone over well in the classroom), but I do recall scampering along on all fours making chimp noises while hanging out with friends (including a girl I was smitten with at the time). Little did I know then that I possibly could have turned that into a movie career many decades later.

Of course, ever since humans invented costumes of apes, people have donned them for movie roles. One need only think of the primates at the beginning of "2001: A Space Odyssey," some of the title characters in "Gorillas in the Mist," and, obviously, all of the "Planet of the Apes" films over the years for examples of such work. That was modified and taken to new technological heights by Andy Serkis and all of the performance capture special effects teams working with him, first with the remake of "King Kong," and then the second rebooting of the "Apes" films with 2011's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

Rather than act from within a chimpanzee suit in the latter, Serkis performed the role as himself, albeit with sensors all over his body that computers then rendered as a realistic looking ape near seamlessly superimposed into the live action footage. The effect was stunning (and earned an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects -- but lost out to "Hugo") as was Serkis' performance that many believed also should have been nominated for an Oscar. I imagine that cry will only grow -- rightly so -- after seeing the actor reprise and expand upon the role of ape leader Caesar in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

While the 2011 film was a cautionary tale regarding what damage science can create as well as one about the evils of animal testing, this direct sequel -- that takes place ten years after the close of that film -- not only continues that thread, but throws in the thematic pitfall of having warmongers living among us. Thankfully returning scribes Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, along with new to the fold writer Mark Bomback don't get too heavy-handed with those themes and instead let them flow organically from the plot.

The story -- directed by Matt Reeves who takes over from Rupert Wyatt -- is fairly simple. In that intervening decade, Caesar has created a peaceful colony of apes -- chimps, gorillas and a few orangutans -- in the woods where the only violence occurs when other animals are hunted for food. They haven't seen any humans for two years, but that changes when one member of a small expedition ends up shooting one of the chimps. That's when the humans learn that the apes have continued to evolve, including the fact that Caesar can now speak.

The expedition's leader (Jason Clarke) reports that back to the unofficial mayor (Gary Oldman) of what's left of San Francisco who gives Malcolm just a few days to get an old hydroelectric dam back on line to provide much-needed electricity to those amassed in the city. If that doesn't work, Dreyfuss is prepared to go to war with the apes to remove them from the power equation. His counterpart on the other side, Koba (Toby Kebbell, likewise excellent in performance capture mode), is also a militaristic hawk who doesn't trust humans and wants to take the battle to them first.

Considering that and given his famous name, there's little doubt that Caesar will sooner or later be tempted to mutter "Et tu, Koba?" at some point in the proceedings. Or that things will escalate to an all-out war between humans and apes, thus giving the special effects teams plenty of opportunity to strut their stuff onscreen, and they do so with aplomb.

But, as before, it's Serkis who provides the best, albeit smaller scale spectacle in ironically showing the humanity in the ape. It's an insanely terrific performance that should make most every viewer forget they're watching a computer-driven creation rather than a real living and breathing being experiencing a wide range of emotions.

In fact, his Caesar seems more nuanced and complex than most of his human counterparts in this or past summer's blockbusters. Not surprisingly, he outshines those in this film, although Jason Clarke is certainly fine enough in his role, while Gary Oldman is okay but pretty much otherwise wasted in his.

While I'm tempted to think "If only three decades ago I would have known there was a future in, well, aping apes in the movies," there's little chance I could have matched Serkis' acting prowess. Considering this and his previous and similar work as Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" flicks, he's one of Hollywood's best but mostly unknown performers. Let's give this man an Oscar nomination for his work here, and the compelling and rousing "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" a 7 out of 10 rating.

Reviewed July 8, 2014 / Posted July 11, 2014

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