Great science fiction is simply great fiction that just happens to involve elements and/or characters that are, at the moment, impossible. In adhering to this approach, director Matt Reeves has accomplished a small miracle - he's smuggled in a heavy, serious-minded drama that flies in the face of most modern blockbuster sensibilities, that focuses squarely on complex characters and shades of gray. This is a film that could be transplanted into a different setting and make for a great classical western or a taught modern political thriller just on the strength of the narrative.
It just so happens that half of this story's cast features digitally-rendered hyper-intelligent talking apes.
The titular primates, many returning characters from 2011's surprisingly delightful Rise of the Planet of the Apes, have spent ten years building a society for themselves when the movie opens. Freed from the shackles of the human world (which has now been brought to the brink of extinction by the Simian Flu), Caesar has taken the place as chief of his people, a tribal leader respected for his strength and wisdom in equal measure, but as early as the first couple of scenes there are hints of tension with his family and his second-in-command, Koba. The film takes care and time establishing motivations, stakes, and personalities among its motion-captured cast, and the performers behind the pixels are working every bit as hard as their human counterparts. They have the added handicap of having to communicate a great deal with looks or gestures, as most of the apes' dialogue is conveyed through subtitled sign-language.
Once they do start speaking out loud more, it's in response to a human intrusion on their idyllic home, heralding a slow poisoning of the world that Caesar has built. In the broadest possible sense, Dawn is a story that you've seen before (echoing parts of The Last Samurai, Pocahontas, Avatar), but unlike those films, Dawn isn't interested in making things tidy and easy for the audience or the characters. From the first frame you can feel the precarious balance holding these lives together, and when it starts to tip towards conflict, it's not the exultant catharsis of the Battle of Pandora or even the rousing escape of Rise. The violence is corrupting and terrifying, and for all of Caesar's triumphs there's no easy way out.
This all comes back to the characters - while the apes were unquestionably the strongest element of the 2011 reboot, their competition was rather broad, particularly in the latter half of the film which features broadly despicable humans to pit them against. Dawn is interested in exploring what lengths a damaged person (or ape) will go to in order to protect their homes, managing to add layers of pathos in even small exchanges between broken families or wordless moments of a man allowing himself to break down in private. Ironically, it's one of the apes that ends up getting shortchanged here: Caesar's mate Cornelia (who was almost completely cut from Rise) is a light plot point but little more, which feels awkwardly uneven given the care given to Jason Clarke's Malcom, Toby Kebbell's Koba, and especially Andy Serkis' Caesar.
And as many times as this has been said in regards to previous films and this one, Serkis is just a damn marvel. The man is a genuine trailblazer in the realm of digitally-assisted performance, an art that shares the limitations of major prosthetics, but doesn't include the benefits of being able to interact with other actors in full costume. He has an uncanny ability to communicate through body language and expression that's all but unequaled. I say "all but" because Kebbell's turn as Koba is every bit as impressive in both the depth of tragedy as well as the horror at what this character is capable of once he gets the chance to co-opt human weapons to vent his hate for the human race.
(Point of interest: The poster heading this review is incredibly ironic, given that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the most explicitly anti-gun blockbusters I've seen in a very long time. Guns in this film are a cancer, dooming everyone they touch.)
Dawn takes its place as the best blockbuster of the summer, a triumphant convergence of idea and execution where visual effects wizardry is used to enhance and realize a character-driven story, rather than to take the place of one. It's the perfect tonic to the thudding idiocy of movies like the Transformers films or the absolute mess that the Spider-man films have devolved into, leaving an audience with questions but no easy answers, awe at the pyrotechnics without the ability to revel in death and destruction, and genuine emotional attachment to beings that are completely computer-generated.
But as with their intelligence, you need only to look into the eyes of these apes to know what's truly behind the surface.