There’s a problem with prequels, Hollywood’s trendiest advance in the science of milking hit franchises. With the exception of the latest additions to the Star Trek and X-Men series, both of which use time travel to conveniently break ties with canon, these feature-length flashbacks travel in only one direction, taking audiences on a scenic trip to someplace they’ve already been. Dawn Of The Planet Of Apes, the week’s big blockbuster release, is technically a sequel to a reboot, picking up at least a decade after the events of 2011’s origin (of species) story Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. There’s no guarantee, in other words, that the relaunched Apes saga will eventually arrive upon a Charlton Heston type damning his ancestors for blowing it all up. But the endgame is still right there in the title: The planet, viewers have been promised, will one day belong to the apes. The only real question is how many more preludes the producers can squeeze out of the pre-Dr. Zaius years.
As directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), Dawn turns out to be a broody and reasonably entertaining act of brand extension, marred mainly by its limited license to do anything but inch audiences a little closer to the inevitable ape-slavement. In the aftermath of a global “simian flu,” introduced at the end of Rise, mankind teeters on the edge of extinction, its survivors huddling together in depowered metropolitan areas—including San Francisco, where Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) gives pep talks to the increasingly demoralized masses. One day, a scouting group, led by token reasonable human Malcolm (Jason Clarke), stumbles upon the woodland encampment of Caesar (Andy Serkis), the chimpanzee whose IQ was chemically increased in the last installment. Post-escape, he’s become a proud father and a revered leader, building a fully functioning society for his fellow brainy primates. But will the reappearance of Homo sapiens, long thought dead and gone, threaten their ape-topia?
Dawn is never more compelling than when focusing on the inner workings of the thriving simian community. The film’s first act is largely wordless, commencing with a group-hunt action scene and dispensing with all but a few lines of subtitled, sign-language dialogue. (One is reminded of the best moments from Rise, the ones set within the ape prison, and also of the great prologue to 2001: A Space Odyssey.) Even more so than before, Apes feeds off the talents of its star: The undisputed king of motion-capture performance, Serkis makes this older, wiser Caesar both physically and emotionally convincing. A scene of him watching footage of his old “master” (James Franco, whose character evidently died in the plague and who is not missed here) is a triumph of collaboration, the CGI animators capturing the small waves of sadness and affection dancing across Serkis’ digitally scanned face.
Yet for all the heart and soul the actor pours into his role, watching Dawn still feels a bit like seeing massive, expensive wheels spin in place. The film is built on a simplistic, can’t-we-all-get-along dichotomy, drawing easy parallels between Caesar and Malcolm, two fathers trying to forge an interspecies peace. Both sides have war hawks threatening the cease fire: While the trigger-happy Carver (Kirk Acevedo) draws first blood, former lab chimp Koba (Toby Kebbell) stews with hatred for his ex-oppressors. Meanwhile, Malcolm’s teen son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) breaks down barriers by reading to the resident orangutan (Karin Konoval). Strangely, the book they bond over is Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole—a choice of little apparent thematic significance, though viewers should probably be grateful that Reeves didn’t go in the opposite direction and cut to a close-up of Animal Farm. (The chief ape commandment, “Ape Not Kill Ape,” provides enough Orwellian foreshadowing.)
This being a summer blockbuster, there are also scenes of ferocious man-on-chimp combat, all lacking in stylistic personality. (In one of the only distinctive visual choices, Reeves fixes the camera to the roof of a tank, vaguely echoing the celebrated POV car-crash scene from his Let Me In.) And the 3-D is completely superfluous, neglecting even to immerse the viewer in the dense foliage of the forest scenes or the impressively vegetated architecture of the city scenes. None of this would matter, of course, if the central drama worked liked gangbusters. But it’s hard to invest in a conflict with a predetermined resolution; there’s just no suspense in a franchise whose history is already written. Dawn plays coy about the possibility of peace, even as its existence is predicated on war being a foregone conclusion. It’s not called Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes And Humans Who Peacefully Coexist.