It starts with the eyes. And ends there as well.
For “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” eyes are a great place to start — and end.
Those eyes belong to Andy Serkis, the immensely talented actor whose lot in his best-known movie roles is to have his body digitally erased and replaced with the forms of various creature characters, including as the big ape in “King Kong” and Gollum from “The Lord of the Rings” movies. In 2011’s “Rise of Planet of the Apes” and now in its sequel, “Dawn,” he plays the majestic alpha ape, Caesar.
Thanks to the miracle of motion capture technology, Serkis has been transformed into a startlingly real-looking simian. But gazing out of Caesar’s ape face are the actor’s expressive eyes, conveying deep intelligence, regal authority and grave compassion. His is a performance of great subtlety, and it’s all anchored in those eyes. When director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”) goes in for close-ups, the effect is spellbinding. You can’t take your eyes off those eyes.
The picture picks up 10 years after the events in “Rise.” A man-made virus dubbed the simian flu has escaped from a lab, wiped out most of humanity and left hyperintelligent apes who were experimented on in that same lab to build a peaceable society in the rainy depths of Muir Woods, north of San Francisco. As captured by cinematographer Michael Seresin’s cameras, the place is an Eden, lush and green. And serving the function of the fatal apple that dooms this Eden is the gun.
A human intruder shoots an ape early in the picture and things gradually devolve from there. The shooting infects the wounded ape’s father Koba (Toby Kebbell) with a raging desire for payback. A raid on the humans’ armory in San Francisco supplies him and his followers with plenty of guns. Eden will be overthrown.
The script, credited to Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, is a symmetrical construct in which the simian characters have their mirror images in humanity’s survivors. A man played by Jason Clarke is Caesar’s equivalent, a thoughtful peacemaker. Like Caesar, he has a wife and an adolescent son. Koba’s opposite is the leader of the humans played by Gary Oldman, who wants to exterminate the apes and reassert humanity’s primacy in the post-plague world.
They are us and we are them, in other words. Caesar and Clarke’s character represent the hope for coexistence. Koba and Oldman’s character represent hostility born of fear.
The picture is at its best in the first hour when it concentrates on examining the structure of the apes’ society and on the slow unraveling of the friendship of Caesar and Koba, who fall out over the issue of whether they can or should trust the humans.
Reeves directs with great dynamism, and his scenes of masses of apes swinging through treetops and swarming through San Francisco streets are rousingly staged. However, late in the movie, that dynamism trumps the early thoughtfulness in battle scenes that are explosive but also a little too generic.
As is customary in “Planet of the Apes” movies, both in the original series that began in the late 1960s and in the current iterations, humanity is viewed with deep-seated pessimism. Posing the question “can’t we all get along?” “Apes” movies answer: No.