All hail Andy Serkis.

While one can marvel at so many things in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," Serkis -- who plays Caesar, the human-sympathizing, laboratory-enhanced leader of a tribe of apes inhabiting Muir Woods just north of the Golden Gate Bridge -- creates one of the most human characters seen in any 2014 film.

The outstanding sequel to "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" continues to assert that this isn't your parents' -- or your grandparents' -- version of the classic story of apes and humans flipping places on the evolutionary ladder. "Rise" announced in 2011 that this was a film reboot to be taken seriously -- which was saying something, considering what a mess Mark Wahlberg's 2001 reboot of the original 1960s film franchise was. And "Dawn" is even better, boldly advancing the concept the way a sequel should, while upping the ante on the visual effects.

Of course, the moviegoer must suspend disbelief at the sight of apes talking, firing machine guns (which is really cool, by the way), riding horses and generally acting like us. But that's easy, because other aspects of the film are so believable, which brings us back to Serkis' dazzling performance as an animal that's as deep, nuanced and conflicted as any human character you can imagine.

In other words, after seeing this movie, some researchers may rethink using primates in experiments.

Director Matt Reeves takes his time getting to the action that everyone knows is coming, and with good reason. He carefully warms the audience up to the idea that the simian virus that escaped a San Francisco lab a decade earlier is offering the Earth an alternative, nonhuman path to civilization by wiping out most humans. Only pockets of people remain, including a group holed up in post-apocalyptic San Francisco, led by the practical but determined Dreyfus (Gary Oldman).


Meanwhile, in the forests of Marin County, the primates that escaped the lab in the last film have built a society with Caesar as their leader. They hunt, they fish, they make fire and develop weapons, and they're multiplying.

Led by the cautiously optimistic Malcolm (Jason Clarke), a small team of humans crosses the Golden Gate Bridge to repair a broken dam as a power source. They run into some of Caesar's troops, setting up the film's most immediate conflict: Can't we all just get along?

Serkis makes Caesar into a classically sympathetic, torn-between-worlds character. His range of emotions and need to believe in species coexistence is palatable. Toby Kebbell is just as powerful as Koba, the scarred former lab ape and Caesar's right-hand primate and eventual rival (right -- I am talking up the performance of men playing computer-animated apes in a movie starring Gary Oldman). While Caesar struggles with loyalties and with making the big decisions, Koba shows the flip side -- arguably the more human side -- of the evolving apes, with his bloodthirsty ambitions (he also provides the film's only bits of humor while outsmarting a couple of useless humans).

This photo released by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation shows Andy Serkis as Caesar in a scene from the film, "Dawn of the Planet of the
This photo released by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation shows Andy Serkis as Caesar in a scene from the film, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (AP Photo/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Reeves and writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback strike an admirable balancing act in identifying heroes and villains. Which is to say you have good guys and bad guys on both sides. The audience isn't meant to root for apes vs. humans as much as for certain characters. It's one of the film's best qualities.

Of course, a few questions remain unanswered. What's happening to the rest of the Earth? How did the apes become so advanced so fast? How does Caesar work a camcorder when I still can't even figure out how to plug mine in? But these are minor distractions in a film that's gripping from the start.

The climax is more than big enough for such an epic film and could've been pulled from a "Star Wars" film -- if only apes could use lightsabers. And the way these primates are evolving, that may happen in the next chapter, which is already planned for a 2016 release. And why not? With characters this rich and an epic evolutionary clash progressing, this franchise is back in full swing.

Contact Tony Hicks at or

'Dawn of
the Planet
of the Apes'

* * * ½

Rating: PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, brief strong language)
Cast: Andy Serkis, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell
Director: Matt Reeves
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Online extra

Go to www.mercury
entertainment to see a slideshow of photos from this film, as well as a trailer.

S.F. takes a few movie hits

The reboots of "Godzilla" and "Planet of the Apes" make San Francisco look like the new Tokyo or New York ... in terms of being destroyed on film. But the City by the Bay has a long history of being crushed, invaded and shaken to pieces on film, including:

"The Rock" (1996): Disgruntled soldiers steal some missiles full of nerve gas and take over Alcatraz. Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage destroy as much of the city as possible during an epic car chase.
"Hulk" (2003): Hulk no like military types messing with him. Hulk. Smash. San Francisco.
"The Core" (2003): When a beam of solar energy gets through the Earth's failing magnetic field, what does it hit? The Golden Gate Bridge, of course.
"X-Men: The Last Stand" (2006): The Golden Gate is targeted yet again, as Magneto rips the bridge out of its Marin County moorings and moves Alcatraz. The showoff.
"Monsters vs. Aliens" (2009): Even cartoons go after the Golden Gate.
"Star Trek Into Darkness" (2013): The San Francisco of the future can also be ravaged, this time by falling spaceships.

-- Tony Hicks