Stupendous Effects, Engaging Plot Just Two Reasons To See This Year’s Best Sequel

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Oh, sure, they’re adorable when they’re little, wearing tiny outfits, learning sign language and scampering about the house like itty-bitty Parkour experts.

Then, the next thing you know, they’re all grown up, presiding over a cliffside civilization of hundreds of genetically enhanced apes and trying to maintain a fragile peace between the few human survivors of the Simian Flu pandemic and their own heavily armed, hairy-armed militia.

At least that’s the plight of Caesar, who’s thrillingly brought to life by Andy Serkis in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the ridiculously entertaining, technologically stupefying sequel that’s easily the summer’s best blockbuster yet.

A brief opening sequence hints at the devastation that took place during the decade since James Franco waved goodbye to Caesar at the end of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” aka “How Alzheimer’s Research, a Jackhole Neighbor and a Sadistic Refuge Employee Led to the End of the World As We Know It.”

Soon after, a couple of apes sit around, signing to each other their curiosity about whether humans still exist, since no ape has laid eyes on one in more than two winters. They don’t remain curious for long, though, as an encounter with a small cluster of humans in the forest ends in gunfire.

Then Caesar and his army show up at the gates of the survivors’ colony in the ruins of downtown San Francisco. “Apes do not want war but will fight if we must,” Caesar tells the astonished humans. “Do. Not. Come. Back.”

I dunno about you, but if an ape leading hundreds more apes — many of them riding horses, almost all of them armed with spears — tells me to leave him alone, I’m going to move heaven and earth to comply.

But that would’ve made for a mighty brief running time.

Besides, as explained by the humans’ leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the colony only has two or three weeks of generator power remaining. They need to get to the hydroelectric dam near the apes’ home if they’re going to have any hope of contacting the outside world and rebuilding society.

Dreyfus wants to annihilate the apes, but Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who led the group that first made contact, convinces Dreyfus that he can negotiate with Caesar.

Unlike Caesar, though, many of his followers weren’t lucky enough to have been raised in a loving home by Franco and John Lithgow. They remember their mistreatment in circuses and medical labs, none more so than Koba (Toby Kebbell), who bears the scars, physical and emotional, of far too many experiments.

Some humans are just as distrusting. As Carver (Kirk Acevedo), the most anti-ape member of Malcolm’s group, says in what could have been the movie’s tagline, “They’re talking apes! With big ass spears!”

After several challenges to Caesar’s leadership, Koba sneaks into town, discovers the humans’ armory and becomes even more convinced that an all-out assault is imminent. So he stages a coup by creating a false flag attack on their forest homes and leads his apes of wrath against the colony.

The sight of an ape wielding an assault rifle while riding a horse through a wall of fire is just nuts.

It should be the pinnacle of summer action spectacle fun.

Then that ape commandeers a tank.

But use essentially the same script, by the team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) and Mark Bomback (“The Wolverine”), and replace the apes with more humans and “Dawn,” directed by Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”), would have been average at best.

As it is “Dawn’s” humans are the equivalent of male porn stars. They’re vital to the production, but with everything else going on, hardly anyone will pay them any attention.

You’ve seen that style of treachery, which Koba leaves his opposable thumbprints all over, a hundred times before. And several scenes could have been lifted from any number of ’80s action movies.

You’ve just never seen those scenes done with apes. The sight of hundreds of them at a time, with nary a rubber mask to be found, is simply stunning.

“Dawn” isn’t just about war, though. The inner workings of the simian society are intriguing. And there’s much more nuance in the performances of that side of the cast than you’d expect.

What the ape portrayers, led by Serkis and Kebbell and their performance-capture suits, accomplish is nothing short of remarkable. Given the rampant Botoxing and face-lifting in Hollywood, these apes have more expressive faces than most humans.

For the actors to get their due, I hope the Blu-ray comes with an option to watch the entire movie with Serkis, Kebbell and the gang before the digital effects artists work their wizardry.

But “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” demands to be seen on the biggest, brightest screen possible.

Don’t wait for the DVD.

And, for the love of all that’s hairy, don’t just watch it on your iPad.

Christopher Lawrence is an entertainment writer at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at clawrence@reviewjournal.com

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