July 16 2014 12:00 AM

Great ‘Apes’ delivers thoughtful examination of humanity, chimps with firearms

In the 1981 film “Quest for Fire,” three early humans seek out a new pilot light that will keep their tribal fire sustained. It’s the simplest story ever told: Man have flame, man lose flame, man look for flame without being eaten by saber-toothed lions. The filmmakers tried to create as authentic a film as possible, even developed proto-languages based on the earliest known human words, and for 100 unsubtitled minutes you can see what it was like for our earliest ancestors to realize the power of their intelligence and experience the dawning of consciousness. It was a groundbreaking film that has for years been without equal.

Until last weekend, that is. With “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the sequel to the brilliant reboot 2011 “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” Hollywood has finally achieved the ultimate feat: It’s created a tentpole franchise that can appeal to savvy moviegoers who appreciate a dark, cerebral examination of what it means to be human, and also to action/adventure junkies who have always wanted to see a chimp ride a horse bareback into battle. Through a wall of flames. With machine guns firing in each hand. In slow motion. (Not a thing can prepare you for the awesomeness of that image.)

It’s a delicate balance, but “Apes” pulls it off thanks to the perfection of motion capture animation, brainy storytelling and a 40-year-old mythology that has provided a wealth of source material.

After the 1968 “Planet of the Apes,” the sci fi film series devolved into mess of bad makeup and monkey puns. But something wonderful happened when writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver reimagined the “Apes” universe from the ground up with “Rise,” smoothing out the scattershot continuity and logical gaps into a single, cohesive narrative that leaves plenty of room for future installments. They created a modern sci fi masterpiece and set the stage for a slew of sequels that can go anywhere. It’s also Exhibit A the best possible argument for the concept of remakes.

Part two of this new storyline picks up 10 years after a worldwide plague has reduced humanity to scattered settlements of desperate survivors; the same pandemic has also given all great apes — chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans — human-level intelligence. The apes live in an arboreal village in Muir forest outside San Francisco, led by the wise chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis), who comes across as an ideological mix between Che Guevara and Sitting Bull. Across the Golden Gate Bridge, a few hundred people huddle in the remnants of a skyscraper, and their dwindling fuel supplies send them in a desperate foray into ape territory to revive a hydroelectric plant.

The humans want power; the apes just want to live in peace. But fear, mistrust and one vengeful bonobo drive each side into a frenzy that doesn’t look good for hominid relations.

The power of science fiction is its ability to allegorize both rational and irrational fears, giving us a way to envisage the frightening unknowns of the future. Slap some pointy ears on a character or find out she’s a robot and suddenly racism, sexism and homophobia go from abstract concepts to living, breathing thought experiments. Does consciousness separate us from animals? Why are we so violent? Are we destined to destroy ourselves?

As revolutionary as the film’s ideas are, the computer-generated special effects are even more so. “Dawn” blows open the possibilities for motion-capture CG use in storytelling, and does for the newish technology what “Terminator 2” did for key frame animation. Computer generated special effects, once a novelty, have now changed the way movies can be made and stories can be told. The chimps, particularly the volatile Koba (Toby Kebbell) are eerily humanlike in their attitude while being rooted in great ape anatomy. Koba, a former lab chimp, hates humans for the things they’ve done to him, and he has the scars and blind eye to prove it.

“I thought apes (were) better than humans,” contemplates Caesar after witnessing some surprising brutality from one his chimp brethren. “But now I see we’re just as bad as them.” It’s a chilling reminder that the qualities that make us human may contribute to that flame being extinguished forever.