The eighth entry into the Planet of the Apes franchise, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an intelligently crafted summer blockbuster with a strong emotional core. Its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was well received by critics and audiences, but I found it largely underwhelming. Its human characters were uninteresting and its emotional moments felt hollow. Dawn improves on these faults with increased characterization that allows us to care for both the apes and the humans. The finale of the film may not be able to live up to the standard set by the film’s excellent first hour, but director Matt Reeves does such a great job with the material that even some of the more disappointing aspects of the script feel tolerable.

Ten years after the apes gained intelligence from the ALZ-113 virus, the human population has been almost entirely eradicated. While the virus was beneficial to the apes, it was extremely harmful to humans, killing off billions of people in less than a decade. Caesar (Andy Serkis) leads a tribe of hundreds of apes in the woods outside of San Francisco. A faction of humans living in San Francisco sends a small group into the woods, to find a large dam and restore power. The small group, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and his wife Ellie (Keri Russell), encounter the apes and fearfully return home to the rest of the survivors. Caesar follows them into the city and informs them that there will be no violence if they agree to stay away. But the humans are running low on fuel and desperately need the dam to start working. The faction’s leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), is determined to go to war with the apes. However, Malcolm convinces Dreyfus to send a small group into the woods and gain the apes permission to start working on the dam. But if the dam isn’t up and running in three days, the humans and the apes could start an all-out war.

I’ve been singing the praises of director Matt Reeves for years now; maybe Dawn of the Planet of the Apes will finally bring him the major recognition that he deserves. The director of Cloverfield and Let Me In, Reeveshas a firm grasp on practically every aspect of the material. Nearly all of the major characters are well crafted, allowing us to form an emotional connection to them and fear for their safety when things get messy. Because the characters and story are strong enough, Reeves doesn’t feel the need to constantly force action scenes into the film. In fact, the best part of the movie is its first half where it favors dialogue, character development and tone over bombastic action. When the action does hit, it’s about as satisfying as you would expect. Not only are the action sequences well shot and choreographed, they’re also suspenseful and frightening. Reeves uses his past skills directing horror movies to make the apes seem incredibly intimidating. The first thing that Caesar says to the humans is a declaration to stay away and it’s enough to make your hair stand on end.

Because screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback establish characters that we care for on both sides of the war, it seems like the film is heading towards a truly tragic finale, one where we don’t want to see either side lose. But around the halfway point, an ape is established as a major villain and it becomes much easier to root for the humans. This ape isn’t a particularly bad villain, but he feels shoehorned into a film that didn’t need a primary antagonist. Every film needs conflict, but not every film needs a villain. It would have been much more interesting, and emotional, to watch the apes and humans go to war without a villain to set things off. If both sides were simply doing what they believed to be right, then the final battle scenes could have carried more weight and, therefore, been more intense. The fact that the impending war was mostly the cause of a single ape left me feeling disappointed.

Taking a much darker route than its predecessor, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a consistently engaging sci-fi blockbuster and a great entry into the Apes franchise. The grim looking cinematography by Michael Seresin does a great job at showcasing the lush forest landscapes and the desolate cities and Andy Serkis’ motion captured performance demands to be seen and recognized as nothing short of fantastic acting. Every single emotion that Caesar displays comes across as genuine and Serkis is able to do this without ever appearing on screen. It’s fascinating to watch and completely believable. With the aid of some dynamite visual effects, Serkis and Reeves are able to create characters that are lifelike and harrowing. With Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the filmmakers showed us that this franchise could still have potential; with Dawn, they actually proved it.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes receives 3/4