For a majority of the first act of Dawn, humans are larger forgotten about. Little remains of man after the virus that struck ten years ago. There were survivors of the virus, but those who lived only went on to kill each other in the chaos that came after the fall. On the opposite side of the Golden Gate Bridge the apes have carved out a peaceful existence for themselves in the Muir Woods of Northern California. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his genetically advanced kin built not just a home, but a society. They have shelter, they hunt with tools and they have rules, the most important one being: Ape shall not kill Ape.
The other apes don't think about man's disappearance and they would have no reason to. Peace has been achieved under Caesar's rule. Unknown to the apes is that a colony of surviving humans exists in the debris of old San Francisco. The sight of a wandering man in Caesar's woods shocks the apes and his bullets break any peace that existed. The man is part of a group represented by the rational Malcolm (Jason Clarke). Malcolm claims the incursion was out of goodwill. A dam that resides in the woods can restore power to San Francisco, but Caesar just wants them out of his land. The conflict never escalates to more violence, but both sides retreat to their respective homes with thoughts of war.
Caesar is challenged by Koba (Toby Kebbell) for his perceived weakness in allowing the humans to leave alive. Koba was the victim of medical testing for years and his hatred of man is enticing to some of the other apes, including Caesar's son Blue Eyes. On the human front Malcolm faces his own problems with the defacto leaders of the colony. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) knows that his leadership depends on getting the power back on and, while he doesn't want war, they have to get back to some semblance of life before the Simian Flu. A truce could be reached among the two sides, but rising tempers and gunfire threaten to bring man and ape to the brink of a war.
Few blockbusters have the tragic underpinnings, or the social conscience present that this film does, and that is due almost entirely to director Matt Reeves. Reeves took the job with Fox when the story was focused primarily on suburban warfare and he shifted it toward the cerebral feature before us. Before Reeves centers in on the dissent and chaos of war, he shows the paradise that Caesar has created. There are choices we make to live, and those choices have consequences. How evolved humans are in comparison to our ape brethren is very much in question. Technologically we have surpassed them, yet that doesn't apply to a society in crisis. At heart, man is still animal.
The disconnect between the astounding special effects work audiences see onscreen and what they accept is non-existent. Weta has outdone themselves in its realization of Caesar and his cohorts. Andy Serkis is excellent (no surprise there) again. His performance won't garner any consideration from awards groups due to the digital nature of his work, but it should. Caesar's ideology works well in theory, but it's heartbreaking to watch when everything doesn't work as well in society. Also turning in a great performance is Toby Kebbell as Koba. Motion-capture has come so far in what it allows actors to do.
Dawn is a very socially conscious film and portions of the message at the center of Apes may irritate some segments of the population, but it is refreshing to see those issues treated in a studio blockbuster. Rise of the Planet of the Apes clued movie fans into a series they didn't know they wanted and it can safely said that Dawn eclipses Rise and joins the exclusive club of sequels that surpass the original. The final running time is about 135 minutes but I would have gladly taken another 30.