Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (which arrives in theaters area-wide Thursday evening) opens dramatically on a set of eyes. The eyes are angry and focused and green-brown, instantly recognizable as human. Except they’re not. They reveal themselves, via slow zoom out, to be encased within the painted face of Caesar, the genetically enhanced chimpanzee from 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, who is now commanding a legion of hyper-intelligent simians on the wooded outskirts of San Francisco, ten years after a virus has knocked out untold millions of the earth’s population.
Reeves, who directed 2008’s Cloverfield and 2010’s Let Me In, leans on eyes as both portal and metaphor (sometimes too heavily) to convey the idea that apes and humans are basically the same. The apes, who for the most part communicate among themselves in a primitive sign language (with subtitles!), are hugely expressive. When they get angry, their faces do what human faces do, contort and harden and distend. Ditto when they’re sad. This is a dawn of the planet of the weeping apes, if ever there was one, and the CGI and motion-capture technology continues to do nothing but wow.
The ape conglomerate is merrily emoting in wooded bliss (awesome and original scenic design, btw) when an envoy of humans happen upon their territory. They’re from a colony of survivors in San Francisco, and they mean to repair a dam near the apes’ home base to restore power and communication channels in the city. Caesar and his clan are not pleased, to say the least, to have been intruded upon. In a gutsy show of diplomacy, they descend upon the colony — peacefully, but in force — to suggest that apes and humans must remain separate. If humans venture into apeland again, they promise war. (The apes' fear of the “other” is of course a mirror of the humans’ own).
But one intrepid human. a “good man” named Malcolm (Jason Clarke) about whom little else is known, perseveres. He returns to the ape camp, pleads his people’s case, and enters into a partnership with Caesar, whose affinity for humans make some among his disciples uneasy. None more so than Koba, the militant chimp who bears ill will against the human scientists who experimented on him years ago. Koba stages a secret coup, and leads the apes against the humans in a high-powered showdown on the Bay Area’s post-apocalyptic weedy streets.
A moment, here, to say that Koba, as a villain, is a revelation. His deranged face and anti-human sentiment are coupled with the very thing that apes resent about humans: their deviousness and fondness for weapons. Koba is an old-fashioned headcase, and his infiltration of the humans’ munitions compound — two scenes where he fools the guards into believing he’s just a dumb animal — are among the film’s best and most tense. He’s a wild card.
The humans, on the other hand, are capital-B Boring. One side effect of Reeves’ central focus on the primates is that the characters most of us would traditionally identify with are little more than cutouts. Other than Malcolm, I’m honestly hard-pressed to recall any of their names. And Malcolm himself is a punchless hero, possessing little in the way of personality or desperation. He has lost a wife to the virus, we learn, and though he claims his actions — flinging himself at the mercy of Caesar despite orders to steer clear — are all for the safety of his son (The Road’s Kodi Smit-McPhee, now presented live in the body of Jay Baruchel), you never really get the sense that he’s a father figure. Jason Clarke is a strong and handsome physical presence on screen. He was terrific in Zero Dark Thirty in a small role. He was good, also, in Lawless in a slightly bigger one. As the main guy, though, he’s a dud. We must assume his chemistry with Keri Russell, his medically inclined post-virus mate, has transpired off screen.
The human colony’s leader, portrayed by Gary Oldman, ascends some unknowable character arc and battles abstract inner demons for much of the film, but you're honestly better off if you just view him as Commissioner Gordon a few years removed.
The real star of the show is Caesar (and Andy Serkis, who made motion capture famous with his portrayal of Gollum in Lord of the Rings). As a creature struggling with his own evolution and his affection for people, plus the responsibilities of fatherhood and leadership, he is more real and persuasive than any of his human co-stars. Along with the masterful tone and texture of the film's visuals, he's worth the cost of the ticket.