Movie review

'Planet of the Apes' fascinates with its sci-fi effects

One of the rules in the primate colony in the Muir Woods: “Ape not kill ape.” 

It’s not the King’‍s English but they’‍re animals who communicate through sign language or occasional spoken word, for crying out loud.

Apes also don’t dabble in comic or light material in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” dark in virtually all ways from tone to mood to forested haven or city ruins. After all, most of the world’s human population has been killed by a virus — an Alzheimer’s trial drug being tested on chimpanzees went awry in an apocalyptic way  and a small band of survivors in downtown San Francisco are about to run out of fuel.

'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' movie trailer

A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier.

That is what sends a group of humans, led by widowed father Malcolm (Jason Clarke), into the woods ruled benevolently but protectively by Caesar (motion-capture genius Andy Serkis). Introduced in 2011’‍s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” Caesar is now a full-grown, adult chimp with a mate and two male offspring, one a newborn and the other a rebel whom he must remind, “Think before you act, son.”

After no sign of humans for two winters, the apes wonder if they are gone but they learn otherwise when Malcolm and a few others appear with guns in tow while looking for a dam that may be the key to electrical power. A hotheaded idiot (Kirk Acevedo), who might as well have a bull’‍s-eye on his chest, turns a gun on Caesars son and another member of the colony and Caesar orders them to “Go!”

When they tell Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), one of the leaders of the San Francisco survivors, what happened, he insists, “That is not possible.” But he is informed, “They’‍re talking apes with big-ass spears.” 

Caesar does not want to go to war with the humans. “If we go to war we could lose all we’‍ve built. Home. Family. Future.”

'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'

Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell.

Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language.

He and Malcolm may believe in pursuing peace but Koba, a bonobo who bears the scars, clouded eye and visible and invisible wounds from lab experiments, hates humans and wants to crush them. Dreyfus, who sees the woodsy power source as the key to finding other survivors and rebuilding and reclaiming the world, is perfectly happy to train an arsenal of weapons and ammo on the apes. 

With scenes reminiscent of war movies or Westerns — especially when the apes thunder into battle on horseback with weapons ablaze — “Dawn” pits ape against ape, man against man and ape against man. Along the way, it poses questions about assessing blame for the Simian Flu pandemic, prejudging one side or the other, the use of violence, effects of fear and forging common ground and new families in the face of loss, as experienced by Keri Russell as a nurse and Kodi Smit-McPhee (“The Road”) as Malcolm‘‍s son.

Directed by Matt Reeves, who made “Let Me In” and “Cloverfield” and replaced “Rise” director Rupert Wyatt, the sequel is all serious business with almost no campy flights of fancy except for a brief bit of monkey business in which Koba hoodwinks some humans. It also reminds us of the joy of listening to a single song in a world silent for too long.

What sells and distinguishes “Dawn” are the visual effects and the belief that you are watching chimps, orangutans, gorillas and others swing through the towering trees or fight to the death or tenderly interact as if they were flesh and blood. It’‍s jaw-dropping at times and the 3-D, although it darkens the image slightly, adds to the illusions perfected by Aliquippa native Joe Letteri and Weta Digital. 

Especially impressive are the faces, including the all-important eyes, which reflect light and project emotion and have none of that “dead eye” problem of computer-generated imagery past. A scene between father and son chimpanzees is as moving as anything involving humans, even as the bleak world view and violence merit a PG-13.  

Plans call for a third installment in 2016 although you won’t find a bonus scene after the credits teasing what’s to come. Here’‍s hoping for something akin to Charlton Heston’‍s “Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape,” a line that will live in human and simian history.  

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog:

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