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Cinema Signal: A green light. Elements of strong appeal for a wide audience. MOBILE version |
. "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"

A simian flu. What does it mean to planet Earth? In director Matt Reeves ("Cloverfield") and his team of writers' distopian sci-fi vision of the future it is the near-eradication of mankind -- the human race.

The saga -- a sequel of a long ago series -- begins with those who withstood the pandemic, buzzing around a devastated San Francisco. The people have no government except the command provided by "leader" Dreyfus (Gary Oldman, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"). Since the city is without power, he dispatches scientists Malcolm ("Zero Dark Thirty") and Ellie (Keri Russell, "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol"), an electrical engineer and other colleagues to tromp through the forests to reach the hydroelectric dam and turn the power back on.

More easily said than done because they're stopped by an unknown species of simians inhabiting the forest, and they are numerous. They are ape descendants of those few who, in a previous episode, escaped the scourge by fleeing via the Golden Gate Bridge to the area's beautiful Muir Woods where they hunt and feed on the meat of Elk and the occasional bear.

Having grown from a few to a band of 200, it's not just their numbers that impress the humans who didn't know they existed, but the evolution. The apes ride horseback, stand straight and compose a force of creatures with actual IQ's who solve problems (mostly with violence) -- the smartest and wiliest being Caesar.

The natural movements of the apes are digitized for film with the use of motion-capture, wherein actors in suits with sensors on key parts of their bodies are visually translated into apes with human motion and expression by a very gifted CGI team, a frame at a time.

The film is virtually carried by the dominant Caesar. His reaction to the sudden appearance of humans on his home grounds immediately shows an ability to see the larger threat if he bows to the wishes of his pugnacious followers who clamor to cut the intruders down out of distrust and fear.

As he contemplates what to do with them and how far he can believe their claim of peaceful intentions, he demonstrates complex intelligence and emotional depth beyond what one would expect and with whom Malcolm can reason.

But the closer ape and man come to mutual understanding the more the political danger rises. The actions of a competitor disgruntled with Caesar's softness toward the humans and wanting to take Caesar's place induces a tidal change in leadershiip. The apes are on the warpath.

The part of Caesar, the film's dominant central figure, is played by Andy Serkis, perhaps the most prepared actor for technical and dimensional portrayal of a preternatural creature that Hollywood hasn't seen or thrilled to since "Star Wars." Just remember his extraordinary little Gollum in "Lord of the Rings" and the "Hobbit" series.

While the group of scientists and electrical engineers are mostly reactive in this scheme, blue-eyed Clarke is a nice choice to be the one who gets through to moody Caesar and nudge out a shaky basis of trust. The other roles being little more than functional, such actors as Russell and Oldman get no chance to display the potentials of their talents.

(For Russell, this is so minor a role compared to what she does in the first season of "The Americans." This exceptional actress who began her career on the Mickey Mouse Club and graduated to "Felicity," (some of which Reeves wrote and directed) is nothing less than astounding in the spy drama -- the kind of astounding that ought to win her an Emmy in the very competitive field of 2014.)

The amazement factor of "Dawn...", however, is Serkis, and where he takes his anti-hero ape into the realm of expressiveness and emotion. He does what every actor wishes to do: leave an impression of himself on the audience's memory. That impression will draw crowds and will not fade by Oscar time.

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                                                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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