Maybe movies about apocalyptic possibilities - nuclear apocalypse, alien-invasion apocalypse, environmental apocalypse, selfie apocalypse* - somehow stave off the real thing. Like a reverse jinx: We watch the world in ruins, so the world keeps going.
In the unnecessarily slow, solemn Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the apocalypse comes by way of global pandemic. Ten years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (the fun 2011 reboot of the original Planet of the Apes series from the late '60s and '70s), only one in every 500 people has survived. The killer: a virus created in a Bay Area biotech lab, a possible Alzheimer's cure that was tested on chimps. The simians did fine - their IQs rocketed to genius levels. Humankind, not so good.
San Francisco is a crippled burg, a catastropolis. All the tourist icons - cable cars, BART stations, the Transamerica pyramid - are a-crumble, covered in weeds, graffiti, rust, rot. A gaggle of survivors is confined to a walled-off quadrant of the city, while across the wrecked spans of the Golden Gate, a tribe of highly evolved orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees lives in the primal mist and moss of the Muir Woods. They hunt deer, they spear fish. They communicate telepathically, and by some kind of crazy magic, we understand them - words appear on the lower third of the screen. I think these are called subtitles.
As Dawn of the Planet of the Apes begins, the simian Shangri- la is interrupted by a couple of Land Rovers' full of humans, come to check out an old hydroelectric dam. They need to fix it, to restore power so they can have lights back in San Francisco, and maybe get their iPads working. Among them: Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who is burly and earnest; Ellie (Keri Russell), who used to work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and thereby knows her way around a first-aid kit; and teenager Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee, a postapocalypse veteran, having costarred with Viggo Mortensen in The Road). They come in peace, but there's always a jumpy, trigger-happy tagalong, isn't there? And so an ape gets shot, and the not-exactly-copacetic relationship between man and ape is put to the test.
Trust. Distrust. Help the humans fix the dam. Damn the humans. Why can't we all just get along?
Leading the apes is Caesar (a soulful-eyed, performance-captured Andy Serkis), whom fans of the vastly more entertaining Rise of the Planet of the Apes will recall as that cute chimp schooled in vocabulary and chess by James Franco. Franco, alas, apparently does not survive the pandemic, but there's a nice snapshot of the multitasking celeb and Caesar together, and an old video clip of the two sharing a sweet moment.
Straight out of Shakespeare, a conspirator arises, questioning Caesar's authority, his judgment, his sympathetic views toward homo sapiens. It is Koba (Toby Kebbell), the bitter lab bonobo from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, understandably wary after a life being prodded, poked, inoculated. At a certain point in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, you expect Caesar to say, "Et tu, Koba?" Maybe a bit obvious, but it would have shown some wit. No glimmer of same can be detected in Gary Oldman's performance. The actor is Dreyfus, leader of the surviving humans, armed with a megaphone and an automatic.
Directed by Matt Reeves (the small-scale and more manageable Cloverfield, Let Me In), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes boasts nicely surreal tableaus of apes riding horseback, of apes hunched on altitudinous girders overlooking the urban dystopia, of apes and man working side by side - and then charging at each other, guns blazin', when the two sides seem to have no other option than go to war.
Maybe that's the sad takeaway of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: that peace is futile, conflict inevitable. No matter the species, we're all doomed.
Hey, pass the popcorn.
(*Selfie apocalypse: The population implodes as injury and death befall millions taking smartphone snaps of themselves at sporting events, concerts, while driving, dining, having sex.)
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Matt Reeves. With Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Andy Serkis. Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, action, adult themes).
Playing at: area theaters.