Wait. If you're thinking that any film that has "Planet of the Apes" in the title means taking a pass, well, reconsider. Of course, suspension of disbelief is required, a must for any quasi-sci fi, dystopian film predicated on a major apocalypse, to include intelligent apes. If that's doable, you will find this recent iteration (the first "Planet of the Apes" was released in 1968) to be not only entertaining and thoughtful, but by far the best.
Set 10 years after "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," a worldwide epidemic, brought on by a man-made simian virus that kills millions around the planet, has occurred. As we quickly learn in the first act, there is a cluster of survivors, who were inexplicably immune, living in San Francisco. Not only did these people survive the flu, they survived a decade of what was a Darwinian horror when civil society convulsed.
Recalling that there is a hydroelectric dam in the northern redwood forests of Marin, a small group sets off to attempt to restart the generators. What they do not expect is to be confronted by a band of chimpanzees that have established a community in the redwoods. They are led by Caesar (Andy Serkis who portrayed Gollum in "Lord of the Rings"), introduced in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (2011), and part of a behavioral research project.
Clearly, the apes do not trust the humans — their reasons embodied in Koba (Toby Kebbel), a much-scarred chimp who had been caged and operated on in the name of science.
The humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), try and convince Caesar and his tribe to let them try and repair the dam. And so begins a long process of negotiating as both the humans and the apes attempt to overcome deeply embedded prejudices and animosities, absent, at least at first, any trust.
The apes have evolved — a remarkable evolutionary leap forward — to the point of language (gestures, signing and some speech), and are more human and compassionate than are, well, the humans, with the exception of Ellie (Keri Russell), companion to Malcolm and a nurse.
What takes place in the final scenes of act two, followed by a tense and confrontational act three, will not surprise. The raw tension between man and ape is the essence of this franchise.
What will surprise is the look of the film. It is beautifully shot, a dark and moody allegory, with a great deal of the emotional weight, much of it sadness, carried by Caesar. There is perpetual regret stitched into the film that is at times wrenching, for the narrative does hold the promise of a peaceful outcome between the two groups.
Meanwhile, Koba, Caesar's trusted lieutenant, does all in his power to alter the ultimate outcome (it's been noted that Koba was Stalin's nickname).
What is also unexpected is the seamless sophistication of the motion-capture technology of the film, perfected by the special effects company Weta Digital. Gone are the rubber-like faces seen in the first "Planet." Gone are the almost Halloween-like costumes. And the tight shots of Caesar's face, his eyes, his expressions, are stunning, truly remarkable in their verisimilitude, the intelligence and compassion of his ape-persona evident.
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" far exceeds typical big-tent expectations (to date it's been a disappointing summer; look no further than the redundant "Transformers: Age of Extinction"). At no time do special effects and CGI dominate or flatten the story. This is a film about a great deal more than angry chimps taking their revenge against those who for decades caged them while believing that the ends justified the means. There's a good story here.
One side comment: I saw "Dawn" in 3-D; however, it is a rare movie that is enhanced by objects seeming to leap off the screen. "Dawn" would be just as engaging in 2-D and the colors might even be richer — 3D, because of the tint of the glasses, can run dark.