The challenge of creating suspense is one that haunts prequels, sequels and reboots alike; it doesn’t help that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is all three.

Dawn’s predecessor, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, avoided these pitfalls because it was a more or less a blank slate that could rely on gripping questions to carry the narrative: How will the apes become intelligent? How will the apes begin to harbor resentment (or outright hatred) for humans? How will the apes escape and take over the world? And how will the human race be (almost) wiped out? That Rise not only raised these questions, but also answered them was a testament to its smart, tight script. But Rise was also blessed with the audience’s unfamiliarity with its computer generated star, Caesar (played by a motion-capture Andy Serkis in both Rise and Dawn): “Look at Caesar move,” Rise called out, “Listen to him speak!” With each new reveal, Rise propelled its story forward and left us wondering where a sequel would take us. So where does it?

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is set ten years after Rise, and the simian flu (once a potential cure for Alzheimer’s) has killed off most of humanity, except for a lucky few who have a genetic immunity to the virus. Caesar now leads an entire civilization of evolved apes, who have established a peaceful life in California’s Muir Woods. But one day a small band of humans, whom the apes mistakenly believed to be all dead, arrives. In panic, one of the humans shoots an ape. This slip-up isn’t good for the humans, who represent a small contingent trying to survive in nearby San Francisco, because they need to gain Caesar’s trust so they can access a dam in the forest that will provide electricity for the city. Caesar faces a tough decision; kill the humans on the spot and start a war, or help to prevent the humans from attacking out of desperation. His decision isn’t made easier by Koba (Toby Kebbell), a bonobo ape with a weathered face riddled with scars from past laboratory tests, who believes all humans should be killed. The humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), don’t help either, as they continue to betray his trust; they sneak guns into the apes’ home and stockpile weapons in the city for an impending attack, despite Caesar’s attempts at peace. Caesar can try all he wants, but we know what will happen next.

To Dawn’s credit, there is a certain fun in waiting to see how, exactly, the first shot will be fired. And the film boasts stunning technological advancements that have made it possible to seamlessly integrate motion-capture apes alongside human characters. But Dawn isn’t afforded the same grace period as Rise; the little tickles and teases we got every time Caesar first furrowed his brow or flared his nostrils are now to be expected. Dawn mistakenly operates under the assumption that more apes will not only make these furrows and flares just as exciting, but also compensate for a looser, more conventional script.

At one point in Dawn, the humans decide to unload their weapons in the event of war. Presumably, they want to conserve as much ammunition as possible. All of which makes a scene in which two men, grimy and disheveled, are assigned to “test” the weapons by firing round after round into an old tank. At this point, I wondered if they weren't being a bit wasteful. Rise made a point of how precious each resource was. The most precious resource of all was time, and it always seemed to be running out: for James Franco to find a cure for his father’s Alzheimer’s with the remaining lab samples of his discontinued drug, for his demented father (John Lithgow) to recover, for Caesar to live peacefully among humans. Rise savored each of these moments while reminding us how fleeting they were. We were impelled to care about how each injection, each second and each breath was being spent. Dawn, on the other hand, is a stunning feat of aesthetic achievement that cries out, “Look what we can do,” but with little concern for how many bullets are left in the chamber, or any curiosity about where they will land.


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