Prior to its release in 2011, the public’s hopes and expectations for RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES weren’t high. 20th Century Fox had already driven their biggest pre-STAR WARS franchise into the ground on two separate occasions. First time around it was more due to the law of diminishing returns than a lack of ideas – three of the four prequels (‘BENEATH’, ‘ESCAPE’ and ‘CONQUEST’) were interesting enough but hampered by a lack of development and budget, until 1973’s BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES was so utterly shithouse it buried the saga for nearly 30 years. And of course, the less said about Tim Burton’s 2001 ‘reimagining’ of the 1968 original (besides some great make-up effects), the better.

But against the odds, director Rupert Wyatt’s efforts were fruitful. RISE became one of the surprise hits - commercially and critically - of its year. All of this of course restored some pressure onto DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, the sequel to the prequel which reimagined the prequels to still tie into the original. 

Don’t worry if you haven’t, because it turns out you’re in very safe hands.

A decade has passed since the outbreak of “simian flu” at the end of the last movie, in which time ninety percent of the world’s population perished. For Caesar and his band of liberated, chemically smartened apes though, times have been pretty good. They have made a sturdy home in the Californian Redwoods where they have enjoyed peace and stability. They’ve not so much as seen a human in years, until a small group comes looking for a hydroelectric power station in the area. After a violent altercation and a tense stand-off, human leader Malcolm (Jason Clarke) manages - barely - to convince Caesar (Andy Serkis) of their peaceful intentions. The humans are allowed to leave in one piece, but are less surprised to still be alive than they are gobsmacked that Caesar can speak rudimentary English. Regardless, there is the sense that a delicate balance has just been upset; we just know that this is going to end in tears…

Wyatt walked from DAWN early on (his ‘creative differences’ with Fox apparently being over size and scope) replaced by journeyman director Matt Reeves, a remarkable craftsman who is as at home with the reportage shaky-cam of CLOVERFIELD (which like 1968’s ‘PLANET’ also enjoyed destroying the Statue of Liberty) as the stillness of LET ME IN – all things considered, we really couldn’t ask for a better replacement.

There's no two ways about it: DAWN’s visual effects are truly wondrous. Not a hair done badly, not an eyeball even slightly uncanny. When the film is done, you might also be considering the amount of rain, fire, and smoke effects also in any given action sequence, and properly appreciate that this is some next-level shit you’ve witnessed. But in the moment, Reeves is master enough to keep a lid on all of that, squashing down any potential showiness with a restraint worthy of David Fincher himself. The result is that never for a second do we not believe. We are free of that distraction, free to be sucked completely into the story, and allowed to completely accept Caesar - here elevated to the lead role - as a complex and wholly developed character.

Serkis has seized (no pun intended) this opportunity with both hands, and delivers his best role to date – yes, better (if not necessarily more enjoyable) than Gollum. The biggest achievement of DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is not only to make Caesar real, but to make him positively regal; at once a great king, wise politician, great military tactician, and doting family chimp. Anger, reticence, distrust, regret – Serkis (and his army of computer artists) can make those digital eyes say more with a look than most stars can with a monologue, and it deserves to begin being recognised (or at least stop being ignored) by awards.

This attention comes at the expense of the human cast, who are very much relegated to supporting players, and other than the always solid Clark’s Malcolm (a family man who, like Caesar, will learn that it is far easier for two estranged individuals to reach understanding than it is for them to broker peace between two societies) are making a lot from little screen time, especially Gary Oldman as the dangerously fearful Dreyfus. The apes meanwhile, with their simpler signing and occasionally verbal communication, get away with far more from their broadly brush-stoked characterisations.

In a way, DAWN holds true to the APES sequel/prequel tradition, in that it feels positively ‘mid-sized’ in comparison to other blockbusters of the moment. But that too comes as something of a breath of fresh air: for once, not everything is on the line - we’re not zipping improbably to various far-flung locations for the satisfaction of foreign box office; the story again never leaves San Francisco, although it hints that it eventually will (further aligning with Heston’s unforgettable end point on the other side of the continent, forever burned into our pop-consciousness). This isn’t your average knee-jerk, bigger-and-showier-than-the-last-one blockbuster sequel, but instead wisely plays out as a bridging chapter in a larger saga – a classy, mature move from all involved. But don’t let that give the impression that it’s all talk; the strong story is punctuated by several inventive and impeccably mounted action set pieces – keep your eyes peeled for a particularly dazzling CHILDREN OF MEN-inspired skirmish from the POV of an out-of-control tank.

Delivering as both a satisfying and accomplished episode in its own right and carefully building upon mythology of the series, DAWN is so close to being everything you could want from a film of its kind, and one of the best of 2014. The reputation of the saga has been wholly restored, and with Reeves, Jaffa and Silver all on board for the next instalment, hopes and expectations are once again high.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is released July 10 in Australia and New Zealand, July 11 in the USA, and July 17 in the UK.