There are some films you go to see with low expectations and back in 2011 Rupert Wyatt’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was one of those.  After the Charlton Heston classic, a long series of increasingly poor sequels and a failed Tim Burton reboot, apprehension was high.  But how wrong could I be.   This was 100% a 5-Fad film (if I’d been doing these reviews in those days):  an epic and gripping story;  great performances from James Franco, John Lithgow, Freida Pinto and Harry Potter star Tom Felton; and stunningly executed special effects, with Andy Serkis’s performance delivering amazing depth of feeling and emotion.   (The scene where Serkis’s character Caesar first speaks is one of my top 10 “most goose-bumpy” moments in cinema history).

Now, 4 years later, we have the sequel – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – which, given how much I loved the original film, I approached with a similar feeling of apprehension.   But, I am delighted to say, I was pleasantly surprised.  

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes neatly takes over in its opening titles where the closing titles of the first film left off.  The so-called Simean flu has wiped out 499 of every 500 people on earth, deftly explaining why James Franco and Freida Pinto fail to reprise their roles in the sequel:  in fact it would have been an unrealistic cop-out if either had done.  Instead – monkey business aside – we have a brand new human cast led by Jason Clarke (“Zero Dark Thirty”, “The Great Gatsby”), Keri Russell (“MI-3’s” ‘bomb in the head’ girl) and heavy hitter Gary Oldman.   These characters are trying to rebuild a new society for the survivors in San Francisco, but their desire for power (of the volts and amps variety) puts them in direct conflict with the emerging simian society deep in the redwoods.  Much conflict ensues, not only between the two tribes but between the factions of the two societies.  

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Once again, there is a good story by original writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, joined by Mark Bomback:  underneath the set-piece action sequences, the majority of the drama comes from the relationships between the characters, and especially that between Caesar (Serkis) and his estranged son played extremely well by Nick Thurston, culminating in a remarkable stand-out scene between the two in Caesar’s old home that is genuinely moving.  And another specific callout (and thanks to my cinema-running friend Stephen Sambrook for reminding me of this) was Yorkshire-born Toby Kebbell playing the emotionally and mentally wounded Koba:  his scenes in the human armoury – think Heath Ledger’s Joker crossed with PG Tips advert – are both funny and distubing in equal measure.

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Is it as good as “Rise”?  No, not in my view.  The first film was novel and deep, and “Dawn” is more superficial in comparison.  It is also far more of an action film (or “a bit fighty” as my dear wife described it), with some standout battle scenes that are a masterpiece of special effects.  If “Rise” could be compared to the original “Alien”, “Dawn” is much more like “Aliens” – wham, bang, thank-you Simian.

The director this time is wunderkind Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”, “Let Me In”), directing with panache and a narrative drive that only occasionally lets up for emotional punch.  The acting is good and (as flagged above) the special effects are outstanding:  the production team clearly saw “I am Legend” and wanted to go one better with the San Francisco streets.  And all topped off with a fine and un-obtrusive score by Michael Giacchino.  

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Highly recommended, and I am now looking forward to the next sequel, planned for a 2016 release.

Fad Rating:  FFFF.