It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is loud, smart and ferociously committed to its premise, and it leaves an intriguingly bitter aftertaste. Like its predecessor, 2011's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," it borrows situations and images from the 1960s and '70s "Apes" films and re-creates them as epic dramas. These new installments in the series aren't as satirical as the original "Apes" movies, but they're just as playfully political; the biggest difference is the sense of intimacy. The politics are personal, and they play out through the character of Caesar (Andy Serkis).
"Rise" portrayed Caesar as a victim turned rebel. His backstory fused the title character of "Flowers for Algernon"—about a simple man implanted with extraordinary intelligence by a scientist—with Spartacus. There were political elements in the script, mainly having to do with the ethics of animal testing. But for the most part "Rise" was a traditional hero's journey. It was about an ordinary ape realizing his extraordinary potential and becoming, pun intended, a guerilla warrior, inspiring his brothers and sisters to overthrow their human oppressors and make a homeland in the Northern California forest. The film's insistence on anchoring every event in strong, simple emotions—most of them originating in the constantly evolving character of Caesar—made "Rise" surprisingly intimate and wrenching. Caesar was your entry point into the story. You identified with him completely, as you did with King Kong, Frankenstein's monster and Dumbo. You felt his pain, and cheered when he stood up for himself.
The mostly excellent "Dawn" expands and complicates Ceasar's story by showing the aftermath of revolution, when the romance of rebellion has faded and boring old reality sinks in. Caesar and his fellow apes have settled in the forest amid remnants of a civilization cast into ruin by simian flu. A small group led by Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke and Keri Russell appears. These humans ask Caesar if they can please reactivate the dormant hydroelectric plant in the woods to restore power to San Francisco, where a few hundred plague survivors have settled amid stone-age squalor. They claim to seek nothing but peace and comfort. The humans' request sparks torment in Caesar and sets the plot in motion.
I've seen a few critics insist that "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is an allegory for the Israel-Palestinean conflict, and certain echoes of that real world tragedy may indeed be present; but for the most part, the film's allusions struck me as more general, like the contours of a fable intended to spark dreams and eventually lead to wisdom. There are echoes of the Old Testament (particularly the story of Cain and Abel) and the New, as well as post-Vietnam westerns that showed what happened when isolated bands (or tribes) of European settlers and Native Americans found themselves in the same territory, more or less evenly matched. In such situations, the groups were usually torn apart by internal conflicts, and that's what happens here. Caesar is a hero who led an ape uprising and has been canonized by his followers as sort of Geronimo or Fidel Castro of simian autonomy. But deep down he's more human-sympathetic than many of his kind, because his human "father" (James Franco, seen in "Rise") truly loved him. (Caesar is also gun-shy, or fist-shy, because his wife was injured in childbirth and can't heal without human medicine.)