‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ wonderfully complicates a sci-fi fable

Updated July 10, 2014

One goes into “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” with cautiously optimistic expectations. It’s a sequel, which can be problematic by design. It’s a sequel to a remake — an admittedly good one, but a remake nonetheless. But it promises, at minimum, an image of pure awesomeness: a hyper-intelligent ape on horseback carrying a machine gun.

So it’s mildly thrilling to report that “Dawn” is the rare franchise sequel — think “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” or “The Empire Strikes Back” or, why not, “The Godfather Part II” — that darkens and complicates the story’s universe without seeming like a retread.

A decade has passed since the events of the surprise-hit 2011 movie “Rise of Planet of the Apes.” The “simian virus” released at the end of “Rise” — it’s very name a calumny seeing as how the disease was man-made — has destroyed humanity; a news report voice-over mentions a 1-in-500 survival rate as a map shows how the sickness spread.

The apes have built a society deep in Muir woods (and boy, is this a fun movie if you’re a San Francisco nerd). Led with quiet-yet-fierce authority by the hyperintelligent chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis, the Cary Grant of motion-capture acting), the “evolved” apes communicate in sign language, have started reading and writing, decorate their bodies with paint and flowers.

Unlike the original “Apes” series and Tim Burton’s atrocious 2001 remake, there is no ape class system. Some things remain: “ape not kill ape” reads some words on a rock. (I guess they haven’t figured out “shall” yet.)

When a exploratory party of humans from what remains of San Francisco encounters the apes, the shock is mutual. Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the thoughtful group leader who wants to build a new life for his young son, is astonished at the apes’ rapid evolution; the apes are surprised to see humans at all.

Apes want the humans gone. The humans need to get to the hydroelectric dam in the ape territory to restore power to the city. When a gun goes off, it takes everything both sides have not to immediately go to the mattresses.

While Caesar and Malcolm see cooperation as a way for both tribes to survive in this new world, both sides have their hawkish elements. On one level, “Rise” is a Western, with the “savages” on one side and a fort of settlers on the other. The ape Koba (Toby Kebbell), a victim of lab torture years prior, refuses to trust the humans in any capacity. “Let the humans do their work,” Caesar says to Koba. “Human work,” Koba replies, pointing to his many scars. Fair enough, brother.

On the human side, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) advocates breaking out what guns are left and wiping the apes out. “They’re animals,” he keeps yelling, the idea of co-existence an absurdity to him.

And so begins an almost Shakespearean web of mistrust, negotiations, crossed signals and palace intrigue with wooden structures 40 feet in the air and in the overgrown remains of an empty city.

Your mileage may vary, but in my experience, a viewer’s natural sympathy in these situations is to side with the apes (as one friend of mine put, “‘animal revenge’ is my favorite genre of anything”). So it’s to director Matt Reeves’ credit that he fleshes out smartly the human side of things. Yes, humanity brought this on itself, but then there’s that scene of the San Francisco colony full of kids who weren’t alive when the virus spread.

Oh, who are we kidding? We’re here for the apes, and “Dawn” is strongest when it sticks with our furry cousins. Here again Reeves shines with jaw-dropping visuals. There’s a whole other movie to be made about the details of ape life and still another that is nothing but wide, sumptuous shots of a thousand apes assembled for battle or diving out of the San Francisco fog. Battle scenes aren’t just kinetic bursts but feel like actual campaigns.

The original Ape movies built their cult reputation on being rough-hewn allegories, campy in spots, especially as their budgets fell, but never acting smugly self-aware (one of the many flaws of the Burton film).

These new Ape movies take a very different tack. If “Rise,” the first one, was about human arrogance of genetic and viral manipulation (not to mention animal experimentation), the second is about the destructive nature of violence and the seductive, self-righteous feeling of giving into revenge.

Which is to say there is absolutely an ape (or dozens) on horseback with a machine gun in there (and it is awesome). But it’s to the credit of everyone involved that the violence is the story’s least engaging aspect.