Movie review: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” shows summer can be smarter

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From the July 17, 2014 edition

Box office prognosticators are wringing their hands over a below-average summer blockbuster season, but Summer 2014 has brought us some smarter-than-expected action, like “Edge of Tomorrow” and the “Godzilla” reboot. It also brought us “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” so there’s that.

Add “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” to that list of wildly entertaining movies that you don’t have to completely shut down your brain to enjoy.

The sequel to 2011’s also-excellent “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” picks up some time after the events of the first film. When we left Caesar (motion-capture performed by the incomparable Andy Serkis), he had led his band of super-intelligent apes into the forests near San Francisco.

An opening montage reveals the gap in time has not been so great for humans. A pandemic of a disease strain known as Simian Flu has wiped out much of the population. “Those who aren’t killed by the virus will probably die in the fighting,” says one grim but accurate prediction.

The apes are living peacefully in the forest, creating a community and educating their young — these apes know how to read, and their communication is rapidly evolving past sign language and grunts. But when a band of human survivors in San Francisco must enter the apes’ territory in an effort to restore power, the worlds again collide.

Director Matt Reeves — who was a childhood friend of J.J. Abrams — shows a deft touch at blending the amazing CGI ape creations (created by Peter Jackson’s company, Weta Digital) with real emotion, on both the human and ape sides.

There are strong human leads (Gary Oldman, Keri Russell and Jason Clarke), but the real magic is in the incredibly emotive apes, the result of both superb motion-capture performances by Serkis and many others and computer effects that you forget are computer effects.

Reeves (“Cloverfield,” “Let Me In”) sets up epic power struggles within both the human and ape groups that touch on the nature of fear and aggression, and the action set pieces are breathless and perfectly executed.

If you want to be entertained and stretch some of those brain cells you strained trying to make sense of “Transformers,” make sure you don’t miss “Dawn.”

Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox