It's a good thing Charlton Heston didn't live to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. This would've killed him.
Heston famously detested being pawed by damn dirty apes, and as former president of the National Rifle Association he could appreciate standing ground against them. Seeing those paws wrapped around pistol grip triggers, firing back? That's some Second Amendment sci-fi, for sure.
See, the problem with apes evolving so quickly is that they eventually become like us, fearful and armed, or armed and dangerous. It's a bold subtext in Matt Reeves' brilliantly conceived fantasy, showing a civilization's disintegration with the introduction of firearms. There's no more apt image for America's gun culture than a crazed chimp on horseback double clutching automatic weapons.
Dawn begins ten years after 2011's Rise in the rebooted Planet of the Apes series, after a man-made virus dubbed simian flu spread globally, killing millions. A pocket of survivors in decayed San Francisco is led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), a sniveler holding power with promises of reclaiming the past. One step is restoring power, with Malcolm (Jason Clarke) leading efforts to revive a nearby hydroelectric dam.
Reeves first shows us the paradise to be lost, a colony of evolved apes led peacefully by Caesar, again motion-captured digitally by Andy Serkis with equal parts heart and tech. In a dense NoCal forest, they communicate mostly with subtitled hand signals, cooperating and joshing with an evolved sense of community. It's an extended sequence — the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey comes to mind — but pulse-quickening with the colony's mass agility and power, hunting deer and defending against a bear.
One day Malcolm's team wanders near, someone does something rash with a firearm, and the simian/Shakespearean wheel turns. Caesar calms the vengeful urging of his closest friend Koba (Toby Kebbell) and, in one of several epic stagings by Reeves, warns the humans to stay away. It won't happen, and Caesar's response raises questions about his loyalty to humans, after he and James Franco were so tight before.
Later there's another rash act of gun violence, more calculated and disturbing due to the shrewdly written characters involved. As tension escalates between apes and humans, trust and deception are confusing issues for both species. The commandment "Ape not kill ape" — recycled from Heston's time — is tested to stunning effect.
Reeves atones for that shaky-cam charade Cloverfield with a movie of ceaseless tension and grandly designed set pieces, a movie to make you lean in. Cinematographer Michael Seresin tints the action with a lovely grimness and inspired ideas, like mounting a camera on a rotating tank turret, creating a cycloramic view of superbly CGI'd battle carnage.
Yet for all of the technological genius at work here, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes maintains a remarkably human core, even under digital makeup. The case will again be made for Serkis (and I'd argue Kebbell) to be made eligible for Oscars, and the evidence is in their eyes, where movie performances are made. The award show clips can be Caesar's expression watching his wife give birth, and Koba's monkey minstrel act to avoid being shot and its shocking reprise.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes brims with the sort of popcorn intellect marking great science fiction, allegorical if you wish and possibly irritating if you do. That's what makes Reeves' choice to put arsenals in the paws of apes, who figuratively shoot themselves in the foot, so daring and genuine. They really are so much like us.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.