In the summer of 2011, moviegoers greeted "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" with low expectations. After Tim Burton's botched reboot of the beloved franchise, who wanted another? But "Rise" turned out to be a stunner, vigorously directed by Rupert Wyatt and anchored by Andy Serkis' motion-capture performance as the intelligent ape Caesar. It was that rarest of breeds, the top-notch popcorn flick.
The sequel, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," arrives with high expectations and falls far below them. Gone are the thrilling action sequences of the first film, replaced by heavy-handed drama and inter-ape power struggles. The tone is dire, the visuals dark and doomy, the pace epically slow. Like so many sequels, it's everything the first film aspired not to be.
"Dawn" tackles the franchise's enduring themes -- man's capacity for destruction and the apocalypse it surely portends -- but with little visual imagination or humor. Set in the aftermath of a "simian flu" pandemic, "Dawn" introduces us to a colony of humans living in what's left of San Francisco. A power plant lies nearby, but here's the catch: It's within the territory of Caesar and his tribe of human-hating apes.
The story feels more like "Avatar" than an "Apes" movie. A human family, played by Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee, wants to work peacefully with Caesar, but colony-leader Dreyfus (a very good Gary Oldman) wants war. Meanwhile, Caesar's throne is threatened by the mutinous bonobo Koba (an aggressively physical Toby Kebbell). Which of these closely-related species will dominate?
New director Matt Reeves ("Cloverfield") treats this material as seriously as a Shakespeare play, albeit with motion-capture apes and big-budget pyrotechnics. The film's confusion is evident in the wretched subtitles, which translate simian sign language. The apes apparently have two rhetorical styles: barbarian-grandiloquent ("We will avenge your father's death!") or California-colloquial ("Are you OK?"). The dialogue is so stilted that "Dawn" sometimes recalls a dubbed Kung-Fu movie.
"Dawn" may not yet spell doom for the "Apes" franchise. But what started out feeling so fresh and exciting is heading into disappointingly familiar territory.
PLOT After a global pandemic, apes and humans go to war.
CAST Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell
BOTTOM LINE The shock and awe of the first film is gone, replaced by overwrought drama and lengthy inter-ape conversations. With subtitles, yet.
CAESAR'S SALAD DAYS GO WAY BACK
Hail Caesar, the prime primate played by Andy Serkis in 2011's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" and the new sequel. While the role has been a hit for Serkis, he's not the only Caesar -- or Cesar -- that moviegoers have gone ape for.
JULIUS CAESAR -- Many actors have had a Roman holiday playing this general and statesman, including Warren William in "Cleopatra" (1934), Claude Rains in "Caesar and Cleopatra" (1945), Louis Calhern in "Julius Caesar" (1953), John Gavin in "Spartacus" (1960) and Rex Harrison in "Cleopatra" (1963).
CESAR ROMERO -- Long before he hit the small screen as the Joker on "Batman," Romero had a successful film career playing everything from the Latin lover in several Carmen Miranda musicals to the Cisco Kid.
'BLACK CAESAR' -- Former pro football star Fred Williamson landed the title role in this 1973 blaxploitation flick as Harlem's answer to "The Godfather" after Sammy Davis Jr. turned it down.
SID CAESAR -- Though he's best known for his classic series "Your Show of Shows," Caesar also dallied with the big screen, notably as one of the greedy road trippers in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (1963) and as Coach Calhoun in "Grease" (1978).
-- Daniel Bubbeo