Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Directed by Matt Reeves  
Starring: Andy Serkis,
Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language
2 hr. 10 min.

I know it may sound strange to you, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has more going on behind the scenes than just sci-fi entertainment. Intentional? Unintentional? I don’t know, but for a sequel about apes adopting human traits, it’s a very surprising and thoughtful exploration of morality cloaked in monkey fur.

War. Peace. Hate. Cooperation. Survival. Trust. Any of these sound familiar? They should, because as the film unwinds, it turns out that the big ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his clan have more in common with humans than just science and evolution.

Maybe I’m taking this a little too seriously, but don’t blame the messenger. Go see for yourself. And while you’re at it, take a moment or two to observe how this whole film seems to fit together seamlessly, from its direction to its writing to the remarkable special effects that can actually turn people into monkeys.

I know it’s not effortless to pull this all together, but it sure seems that way. With the start of the original series in the ’60s, we laughed at the actors in their monkey suits. All that makeup. All that latex. Mouths that barely moved. Today, welcome to the world of Andy Serkis.

It’s 10 years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. A worldwide virus has killed off most of humanity. The apes that escaped have set up their own village in the forests of Northern California. Meanwhile, a roving band of humans are fighting for their survival somewhere in downtown San Francisco.

In order to stay alive, the humans, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), have decided to try and restore some electricity to their city. Their goal is to find and repair a power plant deep in the mountains. Unfortunately, this is where the apes live and when Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and his search party accidentally run into them in the woods, it puts both sides at cross purposes. Malcolm and company need electricity. The apes, who are more than a little wary of their visitors, want humans to stay out of their territory.

Call this the human-ape version of the Middle East peace process. Two factions competing for similar turf. Needless to say, it doesn’t go smoothly. What’s more, ape leader Caesar, who still has fond memories of his human owner, doesn’t notice a rebellion simmering in his own ranks. There are bloodshed and blame on both sides. As in real life, keeping the peace between rival parties isn’t easy or convenient.

Sequels aren’t supposed to be this interesting. In particular, they rarely match the quality of their predecessors, but this one outpaces its original, and a large part of that credit goes to Serkis, who carries himself with such dignity that by the end of the film, you’re convinced he’s really ape and really human — not an actor at all. Serkis and Caesar are one being.

And then there’s the remarkable setting as well as performances by the ape village, a conglomeration of monkey species freed from their human cages. You really have to ask the question:  How’d they do this? Beats me, but it’s sharply realistic and touching enough to draw you into their lives as if you were visiting an isolated tribe in a foreign country. I know it’s not real. I keep telling myself that, but it sure feels that way.

I think this is sci-fi at its best — a story that digs into science, the environment and human behavior in a way that is thought-provoking and entertaining. You might say, this is just a movie, but after glancing at the paper and watching these two tribes struggle for survival, I can’t help but wonder. The story itself? Apes and humans battling to the death? It sure feels like this morning’s news.