While motion capture king Andy Serkis gets top billing when the credits roll at the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, you never see his flesh-and-blood face on screen. But, man, does he deserve it. As the performance behind Caesar, the leader of the band of brainy primates poised to take over the Earth, Serkis, along with a team of visual effects artists, has created a riveting character who is somewhere between human and animal, and who is shockingly convincing. Caesar may be a mostly computerized creation, but he has a soul.
Caesar, whose origins as a Gen-Sys scientist's test subject turned surrogate child were chronicled in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, is middle-aged and a parent in this installment, dealing with overseeing a simian community in a world in which humanity is dying out. He's got a lot to deal with, including a resentful son (performed by Nick Thurston), and telegraphs to the audience a universe of complex emotions, mostly without the use of dialogue. He never once comes across like a computer puppet channeling the movements of an actor wearing a mocap body sock. He feels solid and real, a conflicted idealist trying to construct an ape Eden out in Muir Woods.
We've come a long way from the latex prosthetics (cutting edge at the time!) that were used in the original Planet of the Apes. Nifty technology and sharp, smart writing in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which opens nationwide on July 11, make it easy to surrender to the idea of a primate population eclipsing the straggling remnants of mankind, most of which was wiped out by the same manufactured virus that boosted the intelligence of the apes. Its enhanced chimps, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans aren't humans playing at being animals — they are animals, and they're not all that sure that humans are what they want to emulate.
The film has a perfectly competent human cast, including Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as a ragtag end-of-the-world family and Gary Oldman as the leader of the survivor colony holed up in the ruins of San Francisco, but it's the apes whom the story starts and stays with for a surprising amount of time, and it's their struggle for the future that's at its heart. The apes have been inventing a civilization for themselves while the people have been fighting to hold on to what remains of theirs as resources run out. In other words, humanity can suck it — this is a movie about monkeys.
Well, monkeys and metaphors. In taking over the rebooted Apes franchise and picking up 10 years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Let Me In director Matt Reeves has made a gripping sci-fi drama that's also a handy all-purpose allegory. Its depictions of the cautious forays toward alliances and conflict between the humans and the apes are compelling by themselves, but also throw up all sorts of other resonances.
Pick your poison: Is it about race, a fraught discussion since the first Apes movie in 1968? There's a scene in which the mistrustful Koba (performed by an excellent Toby Kebbell) fools two suspicious humans into thinking he's harmless by putting on the act of an eager-to-please, cartwheeling pet. He clowns and capers his way behind their defenses. It's a provocative moment that reads like a primate equivalent to Stepin Fetchit-style playing into racist caricatures, Koba's empty expression replaced by a sneer as he turns away.
Is it about gun control? Dawn of the Planet of the Apes quietly presents a case that the weapons make peace impossible, with the apes living in gun-free stability until a human search party reintroduces them into their world. Guns aren't the cause of the violence roiling underneath most of the film, but they're the embodiment of the promise of violence, and the movie's a rebuke to the idea that there can ever be trust when one or both sides of a conflict are packing implements intended to make it as simple as possible to kill things.
Guns make it all too easy for someone to fire the first volley in a war that's impossible to finish, and guns mean that war can take place on a larger scale than either side really wants. They're fuel to the fear and anger both humans and apes are harboring.
Is it about the Middle East? OK, probably not, but there's an undeniable twinge to the film's rueful understanding that some people/apes will never be able to get over old wounds. Caesar on one side and Jason Clarke's Malcolm on the other know that peace means accepting vulnerability and being able to forgive sometimes terrible slights, but not everyone agrees with them. There are human and primate characters so warped by past trauma that they can't and won't see the other side as anything other than broadly monstrous.
But Dawn of the Planet of the Apes doesn't lean heavily toward any one reading — its characters, or at least its primate ones, are too carefully drawn to just be symbols for something else. It's the humans who intentionally frustrate, turning out to be bickering and conniving, unable to accept that they might no longer be the dominant species. This is a story of humanity receding while holding out hope that things can be rebuilt and returned to what they were. It's a story of apes trying to set up a perfect society on a planet they seem set to inherit. And it's ultimately a gracefully told story about how neither of those things works out the way the characters would hope, and about how wise and wary Caesar has become its hero, even as he's forced to realize that humans and apes have more in common than either would like to admit. It's a hell of a thing to convey when you're not much of a talker, but he's more than up to the challenge.