The appeal of surprise 2011 hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes was that Hollywood had made a movie with a largely silent, motion-captured performance that eclipsed any of its human characters. The fact that it felt like a propulsive blockbuster without leaning on empty, over-the-top action scenes was even more impressive. Matt Reeves' follow-up Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes all of that promise and expands on it mightily, delivering a robustly-told story of our sad tendency to escalate towards violence, even when armed with all our supposed intelligence.
We left our hyper-intelligent ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) in the California redwoods at the end of Rise, having smarted up a bunch of captive apes with a virus designed by James Franco's character. Ten years on, that virus has wiped out most of humanity while the apes continue to flourish; when a band of survivors in San Francisco try to negotiate their way into fixing a dam in the apes' territory to help restore power, things get immediately tricky. Dawn's problem is that you know things are going to go wrong—our human hero Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is a well-meaning man, and Caesar is smart enough to want to avoid war, but each side has its twitchier factions who don't trust any truce to hold.
Reeves did a fine job on his last two features (Cloverfield and Let Me In) but Dawn is definitely a step up. The opening scenes, where we just spend time with the apes hunting and returning for their home, are pretty remarkable both in how quiet they are (the apes communicate by signing) and how seamlessly they blend in the motion-capture technology. Even if you keep thinking about what went in to creating the performances, they feel incredibly vivid. Then the humans show up, some of them toting guns, and Caesar's right hand Koba (Toby Kebbell) begins agitating for the apes to stop them from rebuilding, remembering the torture he suffered as one of their lab-rats.