Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Year: 2014
Production Co: Chernin Entertainment
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Matt Reeves
Producer: Peter Chernin/Rick Jaffa/Amanda Silver
Writer: Mark Bomback/Rick Jaffa/Amanda Silver
Cast: Jason Clarke, Teri Russell, Gary Oldman, Andy Serkis, Toby Smit-McPhee

You so rarely see a sequel that's better than the original, but it wasn't hard to beat Rise of the Planet of the Apes in my opinion. It tried to be smart but ended up silly, was too clean when it should have been grimy and the ape effects – no matter how cutting edge – just weren't convincing enough.

It also didn't adhere to either the sci-fi trappings of the idea or the scientific plausibility to make us imagining it really happening.

It's hard to put your finger on what makes Dawn so much better, but it is. Maybe it's because the still-not-perfect effects are more at home in the more primitive world after the end of history. Maybe the apes talking to each other (and humans) doesn't feel so silly now they're a more established species of intelligence and purpose. Maybe it just has the conviction of its themes – strong militaristic ideas about the pre-emptive strike and the clash of civilisations. Maybe it's all just more exciting.

The simian flu we saw at the end of the first film has ravaged the Earth's population, and when we meet survivors like Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), San Francisco is an overgrown wasteland. After ten years there's hardly anyone left, and while those who remain barricade themselves into a makeshift encampment in the city and live off scraps, the apes up in the hills have created their own civilisation led by Cesar (played again in motion capture by Andy Serkis).

Teams of human scouts are sweeping the jungle trying to find the old power plant controls so they can get the electricity turned back on, and when a group led by Malcolm comes across a couple of chimps collecting provisions, the inevitable skirmish reminds everyone of the enemy over the hill.

Cesar wants to just leave the humans alone, but Koba - the ape with the angry face from the last film – is warlike and angry. He doesn't trust the humans, urging an attack that will do away with them altogether. Even when an unsteady truce is struck and Cesar helps the humans get the power back on, ape politics go on behind the scene as Koba plots the fate he thinks the humans deserve, even if it means turning on his leader.

There are some spectacular action and battle sequences that expand on and deepen the promise of the first movie, and it's smart enough not to be a white liberal apology for being human either (like I was expecting). The apes aren't all peace loving noble savages while the humans are cruel, violent overlords.

Cesar and Malcolm understand each other because they both want to same thing – to survive. But Koba and Dreyfus are similarly cut from the same cloth, wanting to destroy the enemy before the inevitable attack comes. If anything, the movie says that intelligence only augments the good or evil we already have.

It's actually a strong idea and a rare example of Hollywood getting science right. Primatologists have observed that some chimps are calculating, some are trusting, some are shifty and some seem to be angry or mean by nature – just like us.

What isn't scientifically sound is the pivotal 'speech' Cesar gives in the trailer when he observes to Malcolm that they want to same thing – home, family and future (any zoologist will tell you chimps don't build huts and houses but occupy a territory they move around in, and males aren't the least interested in their offspring).

But that's a science-nerd criticism, and it takes nothing away from well-executed visuals, outstanding action and a much richer story than we saw the first film.

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