Dawn continues the saga of Caesar (Andy Serkis), a chimp with vastly superior intelligence who has gathered other primates around him after their dramatic escape from San Francisco. The undisputed alpha, Caesar's leadership is put to the test as humans stumble into their forest home. Led by engineer-type Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the small group seeks to reactivate a nearby dam so they can power their headquarters and hopefully connect with other survivors of the virus unleashed during the end of the first movie.
Caesar allows the humans to return to San Francisco to their leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) whose initial instinct is containment. Back in the forest, Caesar's right hand, Koba (Toby Kebbell), agitates for action. Caesar's decision leads to intimidating visuals, and for the rest of the movie, he continues to demonstrate excellent executive ability until [SPOILERS REDACTED].
Dawn's main lesson is one that resonates because it's so true: in every group, there's always that one asshole who ruins it for everyone. When tensions are high and territories and ways of life are on the line, the cooler heads often don't prevail. That leads to the second lesson, declared by Caesar's son: people follow because of fear. As political commentary, this sci-fi flick nails it. Bonus: primatologist Prof. Frans de Waal says the film is true-to-life in many aspects (read full BBC article).
There are a ton of standout scenes in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: apes on horseback, the epic man versus ape battle, smaller fights to establish dominance, apes hunting in formation, and so on. I would say Caesar's face is its own standout--it's very expressive, and the character's wisdom, compassion, and strength shine through, thanks to Serkis and the teams at Weta Digital. Caesar is basically ape Jesus.
TL; DR: Best action/sci-fi film this year so far.
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