Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) had better special effects than either the original franchise or the Tim Burton remake—but it had two big problems. First, since it was an origin story, we always knew what the the outcome would be. The movie had ninety minutes of foreshadowing, followed by fifteen (stellar) minutes of action mayhem. Second, since nearly every human that wasn't Rodman or his love interest was an unrepentant jerk, it was hard not to find ourselves rooting for the apes—or at least wondering if we were supposed to.
But what Rise did well, it did exceptionally well. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has a new director—and, perhaps more importantly, it doesn't have to be an origin story. So there was no reason to think that this newest film couldn't be one of those serial installments (like The Empire Strikes Back, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, or Toy Story 2) that was better than its original tentpole.
It is better. Not by much, though, and not where it counts the most. It's better on the level of spectacle, but the storytelling remains shaky at best.
Its implications about us also remain troubling—and not in a good way.
Dawn begins several years after the "Simian Fever" has decimated the human population, causing the collapse of governments and crippling the technological infrastructure on which civilization apparently rests. After a montage during the credits summarizes the back story, the film's first fifteen minutes or so focuses on the burgeoning and somewhat Edenic ape civilization in the forests outside San Francisco.
The highly evolved ape Caesar has passed on sign language (and a smattering of voiced words) to his companions, along with healthy doses of common sense ("think before you act, son," an older ape tells his offspring on a hunt) and a rudimentary moral code ("apes do not kill apes"). Eventually a small band of humans, in trying to reach a dam to restore hydroelectric power to the city, stumble across the apes' community. Despite some early missteps, the good ape and the good human (Jason Clarke as Malcolm) tentatively work out an understanding while those surrounding them give vent to their fears and mistrust, pushing the two groups towards war.
At this point, Dawn runs into the same problems that bogged down Rise. The rebooted franchise may not be following the exact mythology of the original Planet of the Apes series, but does anyone think there is not going to be a war? The filmmakers are more interested in plot (how will the sequence of events unfold to lead to the inevitable?) than in suspense or conflict. So the second act drags on way too long; it's like watching the middle innings of a baseball game on tape delay after you've already been told the final score.
And as with its predecessor, Dawn doesn't give its human community even a modicum of pragmatism, outside of the sympathetic protagonist (or his family nucleus). So we have nobody to root for once the war starts. If Malcom isn't back in three days, the humans are going into the forest to kill all the apes, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) vows. The humans tortured him when he was a captive lab animal, Koba complains.