Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

This is a poignant, powerful film that will both surprise and impress you. While I won’t say why, you will embrace the ape called Maurice.

Dawn of the Planet of the ApesOnce in a while a so-called science fiction/action film grabs the Summer season by its cinematic throat, forcing all of the other films to dance in its shadow. That is precisely the case with Director Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Only the most recent X-Men is in the same league.

Quite frankly, it makes Spiderman 2 and Transformers 4 look like Cinderella’s annoying stepsisters. The musical score by Michael Giacchino adds angst to every moment while the Special Effects of the team led by John S. Baker and Alex Burdett are as dazzling as you will see in any film this year. As an example, wait until you see hundreds of apes majestically swinging through the forest with the ease that they accomplish through high-rise buildings.

The original film of this new series, released in 2011, captured your emotions in ways that appeared shocking in hindsight. You saw James Franco as a scientist raising a young ape named Caesar, only to have him shamefully imprisoned in a facility where he was mistreated with little concern. However, Caesar’s treatment with new experimental drugs led him to an intelligence level equivalent of humans, and he led his colleagues in a spectacular escape over the Golden Gate Bridge.

Here, Caesar, his mate and two children lead a large ape colony in the forest near the destroyed San Francisco. Human life has been all but eliminated because of a deadly virus named the “Simian Flu”, and the remaining humans and existing apes haven’t interacted in over ten years.

That changes when a group of humans, seeking a dam to restore electric power, stumble across Caesar’s village. Catastrophe awaits everyone when one of the humans shoots a challenging ape, and everything appears lost until peace is sought by the human Malcolm, played by Jason Clarke.

Nearly all existing humans have suffered some traumatic loss. And that applies to Malcolm and his teenage son, Alexander, played by Kodi Smith-McPhee. Kerri Russell accompanies our duo as Ellie, a woman who, like them, has lost her family.

Mr. Clarke is an underrated actor, as demonstrated by compelling roles as an excellent villain in last year’s White House Down, the betrayed husband in The Great Gatsby and memorable performances in both Zero Dark 30 and Lawless, both 2012. Ms. Russell has been in a series of largely forgettable movies, but she is completely believable as the important nurse treating the wounded Caesar here. Finally, one should also not overlook the talent of Mr. Smith-McPhee, who demonstrated his ability in both Let Me In (2010) and The Road (2009).

While Gary Oldham also appears as the manic-depressive leader of the humans in San Francisco, it is the unforgettable performance of Andy Serkis as Caesar that dominates the movie. In much the same manner as he did as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings series as well as the recent Hobbit films, Mr. Serkis brings Caesar to life at a depth impossible to describe, and it will be a crime if he is ignored at Oscar time.

The film focuses on an unfortunate war between apes and humans, and it is precipitated when Caesar is betrayed by his closest ally, Koba, played marvelously by Tony Kabbell. Koba sees war as the only answer, and after disposing of Caesar, he leads an attack on the humans that poses a monumental disaster for both sides.

When Caesar confronts Malcolm near the movie’s finale with the observation that only trouble exists in the future since the apes started the war, I couldn’t help but think of what it must be like to live in the Arab world after Osama bin Laden initiated a war with the September 11th attack. Like Koba, his limited initial success put all of his people in jeopardy, and it created a world that still threatens to unravel.

The beleaguered ape colony further reminded me of the multiple exchange students my wife and I have had in our home since 2001, all from Saudi Arabia. We have spent extensive time with them and their families, and this film provided a lesson that we as Americans lose our souls when we allow patriotism to be defined by hatred of others.

While there are many intriguing moments throughout this daring movie, none are more telling than Caesar’s repeated decree that apes are different from humans in that “apes don’t kill apes”. It makes you wonder if we can really say that human beings are the highest elevated form of life on Earth when we are so willing to repeatedly destroy much of our planet and the humans occupying it.