Matt Reeves

With: Andy Serkis, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman

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Runtime: 130 minutes

THE primates in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes are not just any old simians. As one half-terrified, half awe-struck human describes them, they are "talking apes with big-ass spears". In keeping with that grand notion, Matt Reeves delivers a picture that features big-ass ideas, gargantuan action, and a haymaker of an emotional punch.

All that and amazing special effects too. As in the first of the series, 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the FX in the sequel are breathtaking. What is perhaps more striking about Reeves's picture, though, is that the quality of the drama matches them. This monkey business is serious, and seriously entertaining to boot, though younger viewers might wish for the action to start earlier.

At the end of the previous film, the apes, led by Caesar, were so disenchanted by humans they lumbered off into the fog settling over the San Francisco bridge to set up their own society. By the time Dawn comes up, 10 years have passed and the humans, hit by a simian flu manufactured by themselves, are not doing too great. Their cities in ruins, their numbers decimated, they are desperate for heat, light, and all the other trappings of their civilisation. When a dam is discovered near a community led by a scientist (Gary Oldman) it looks like something of the good old days might be here again. Only trouble is, the disused power plant is on land inhabited by the apes.

Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In), taking over from Rupert Wyatt, creates a convincing picture of a human society gone back to basics, where the sheer struggle to survive is etched on faces. He focuses on one family: Malcolm (Jason Clarke), a former architect, his partner Ellie, a nurse (Keri Russell), and Malcolm's son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Mirroring this clan in the ape settlement are Caesar and his offspring. Though it takes on big themes of war, peace, power, and violence, Dawn is at heart a family affair.

The inevitable clash between humans and apes takes a while to come to the boil, and younger cinemagoers might wish there was less jaw-jaw in these early stages, particularly as some of the apes' words are in sign language and translated into subtitles. Still, children, like everyone else, should be entranced by the special effects which turn human actors into computer-generated apes. Likening the special effects in the original 1968 film, Planet of the Apes, to Reeves's picture is like comparing a pad and pencil to an iPad. Whenever he can, Reeves puts his camera on the apes' faces, filling the screen with their features, capturing the emotions on show. Our distant cousins have never seemed so close, and watching them as they go about their everyday business is magical, whether they be chewing the fat over what has happened to the humans, or teaching their young such valuable lessons as "ape not kill ape".

Such realism helps enormously when it comes to the dramatic encounters between the apes and humans, and among the apes. Each main character is given room to develop, with some coming to the fore as never before, including Koba, the survivor of lab cruelty who has nothing but hatred for humans, and Caesar's son Blue Eyes. So involving are the power plays one almost forgets the dramatis personae are meant to be apes.

The 3D comes into its own in the heart-thumping action scenes, but otherwise it seems surplus to requirements in a film that wants to move as much as thrill. Shouldering much of that task is Serkis, who between this and his work on The Lord of the Rings and King Kong, has become the Caesar of motion capture performance. You do not need to be familiar the ins and outs of the technology to appreciate that these effects are very special indeed. Combined with Serkis's good old fashioned acting, the result is captivating. You will really believe apes can take over the world, and you might even cheer them on in doing so.