And so into the city they rode, on horseback, with machine guns and exposed fangs and grunts, and stood with spears atop rusting cable cars, looking first for something like peace and, later, for war. The place is San Francisco, the horsemen apes, and the line vague between what’s real and what’s computer-made. But you surrender to the point where you’re no longer aware of the digital wizardry. Maybe you know that Andy Serkis is “playing” the apes’ leader, Caesar. On the one hand, you’re watching the computer-generated synthesis of a very good, very particular sort of acting with state-of-the-art technology. On the other, you’re watching the Meryl Streep of motion-capture technology.
You experience wonder and a reasonable approximation of dread. Seeing scores of monkeys pulling on reins forces you to accept the inversion of order, and maybe breathe a sigh of relief. It’s not as if they’re riding us. Not yet. But that’s the unstated tension in these new Planet of the Apes movies: We’re this close to being their monkeys.
The series started in 1968, as a Charlton Heston vehicle that used its interspecies strife to mirror all kinds of political strife outside the theater. Tim Burton tried to resurrect it in 2001 without really knowing why. The movies came fully back to life in 2011, when Rise of the Planet of the Apes posed moral and ethical concerns to the animal-testing corner of the medical community by dramatizing the stress of life as a science project. It was a horror movie — a sensitive, intelligent, outraged, suspenseful one with disturbingly good visual effects — that started as a family film: a doctor searching for a cure to his father’s Alzheimer’s works for a company that goes too far. Eventually, the projects strike back and then out into the forest where, a decade later, in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, they’ve evolved in a nice, if rainy, fiefdom.
As for Homo sapiens, the search for that cure unleashed a virus that has decimated most of the world. What’s left of San Francisco’s population is now packed into Fort Point. Humans are languishing in primitivity, while the apes are wrestling with more civilized concerns. Caesar’s biggest headache is his rebellious adolescent son. The elder ape enjoys deep, subtitled sign-language discussions about humans with his friend Koba. They pat their bodies and paint the air, as Caesar says that he remains ambivalent toward people and Koba says that he does not. They were tortured, which is unforgivable.
Their philosophical differences remain theoretical until some men (Jason Clarke, Kirk Acevedo, Kodi Smit-McPhee) and a woman (Keri Russell) come trespassing in the woods. (Gary Oldman holds down the fort in San Francisco.) One guy gets aggravated and antsy and shoots one of the apes. It’s just a wound, but this is the sort of deliriously detail-oriented production that invites you to detect exasperated worry in the folds of Caesar’s brow. “Here we go,” he and Koba seem to say — but in opposition to each other. The trespassers from San Francisco have come looking for a dam that will restore the city’s electricity, easing life in their compound, perhaps connecting them to the outside world and, with any luck, to their Apple products.
The humans’ request for help ignites a debate among the apes. Koba argues that, in the long run, compassion will lead to conquest, and the conquest will lead to war. He has a point, and not because he’s the hawk to Caesar’s dove, but because dominion is what humans do.
What follows is a fight for electrical, military, and physical power, one that sees the apes eventually armed and massed. This is the first Hollywood movie since Mr. & Mrs. Smith to make certain kinds of gun ownership seem insane. A chimp on a horse is strange. A chimp on a horse holding an AK-47 is nuts. (The climax of the new Transformers movie has a similar incongruity: trucks riding dinosaurs. And that’s inane: At the very least, it should be the other way around.) In any case, the animals have taken on a human militancy, and the movie lets the scariness of the transition sink in. The apes are guerrillas.
A different film — an apocalyptic commentary on bellicosity and assimilation and how the Centers for Disease Control cannot hold — might have gone for a gag about apes, horses, and guns, like dogs playing poker. The apes might have found a television and DVD player, and in the player would have been a Die Hard movie or one of those John Wayne cavalry Westerns, and when Koba arrived at Fort Point, his horse would have reared up and he would have said something like “Yippee ki-yay.” But the movie goes for the surrealism of the image and not the joke. You’ll think of the Wild West no matter what. But now you might think of the Middle East too.
The factionalism and murderous revenge roiling that part of the world has spiked in the last month and a half. It should feel crass to pay money to watch an expensive version of that in an air-conditioned multiplex, but it seems as if lawlessness, division, war, insurgency, supremacism, and vengeance are all over the movies this spring and summer. In that fourth Transformers installment, yes, and Snowpiercer, too — but chaotic unrest drives that second Captain America movie and Edge of Tomorrow and shows up in films as seemingly benign as Maleficent and How to Train Your Dragon 2.
These movies are different from the ones of past seasons, which saw blockbusters wishfully graft toys and superheroes onto the iconography of the September 11 attacks in films like the third Transformers, Iron Man 3, and Man of Steel. Before 9/11, when Hollywood wanted to do terrorism it had a bad guy blow something up (or threaten to) and then ask for a lot of money and a helicopter. This scenario made Bruce Willis and Keanu Reeves stars. But increasingly, the bad guy is some kind of idea or power structure.
In Snowpiercer it’s class warfare. In Maleficent it’s gender. In some of these movies, human beings — American human beings — wind up in the way of other species. In Transformers: Age of Extinction, we just drop stuff on more stuff, which is more or less true in Godzilla too. Big American movies at the moment are no longer about American might. They’re more about ambivalence, more about “maybe.” Maybe Tom Cruise can save the world. He’ll just need to get killed a thousand times to do it. He’s dying really hard.
Snowpiercer features an international resistance army only partially led by an American. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an entire movie about how Americans aren’t the center of the universe. It’s the end of the world in San Francisco: Anybody could be from anywhere. The movie doesn’t treat this reshuffling with anything like anxiety. The humans wind up helping the apes in what’s effectively a civil war, as additives, just as the humans do in that Transformers movie.
Koba and his militia discover from humans the ecstasy of guns: They’re easier than diplomacy. They’re easier than killing with your own brute strength. But under Caesar’s command, they’re made to seem a cowardly instrument. Hollywood chillers and science fiction films like to propagandize against competitive advances in technology — television and VCRs and the Internet (Poltergeist, The Ring, Transcendence). But here’s a movie that makes a point to consider the enduring attraction to and danger of a much older weapon. At some point, Koba puts his gun down to teach himself to drive a tank. It doesn’t take long — enough time for the camera to make a chilling 360-or-so-degree pivot along with the turret. We’ve passed the exploratory science of Charles Darwin and into the violence X-rays of Hannah Arendt.
The director is Matt Reeves, who did Cloverfield and helped turn the Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In into the overstyled, overly conceptual 2010 remake. Reeves has a good screenplay by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver that allows him to take his time to build the story around the faces of the primates: incarnations of chimps and gorillas and one orangutan with a cast-iron skillet for a face. The movie also has a perfectly used thriller score by Michael Giacchino, and editing that flatters the work that went into orchestrating the blend of live action and animation. The fighting is navigable. Michael Bay is a director who could also be doing this with effects and ideas and combat. He could make Apocalypse Now or Jarhead, one of the most underrated movies of the last 40 years. But right now he’s too taken with the kick of destruction to call into question the urge to obliterate. It’s like telling a two-pack-a-day smoker to quit. Good luck with that.
Reeves is another of those good young directors who, at the moment, is spinning in the revolving door of recycled and remade products. He can make the overhauls seem original enough. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes gets to be exciting and to say something about the world instead of merely blowing it up. The apes are among the more intellectually complex characters you’re likely to spend time with this summer. A lot of care and imagination have been lavished on the creation of their world.
And in Caesar, they’ve invented an exciting, heroic character that you find yourself rooting for. The kick of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is its unadulterated belief in the kind of leadership that’s worrying other movies at the moment. Caesar’s humanism is a touch naive, but his idealism is a source of strength — what allows him to be a good husband, father, friend, and commander. Koba’s wary pragmatism makes all the sense in the world. Then it tips into a kind of senselessness. Waiting for Caesar to restore order, I experienced an impatience that I haven’t felt since the first Superman movie: Hurry up and save the world. This is a fake monkey, but the urge to let him protect us feels intensely real.
An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Koba’s son was shot by the humans; the victim was a different ape.