Who knows why, but the sight of apes sitting tall and proud on horseback is stirring in a primal way. That's one of the best images in Matt Reeves's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the sequel to the enormously successful 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in which a bunch of chimps become super-smart and break out of chimp jail, running roughshod over the Golden Gate Bridge and scurrying to eternal safety in the Redwood forest.
No matter: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a much better and far less silly movie than its predecessor: It lives so confidently in its invented universe that you almost believe a society of apes could thrive on the outskirts of San Francisco, with the little ones learning their alphabet by scrutinizing letters scrawled on the face of a rock, and the big ones casting deeply meaningful looks at one another when they're not communicating via sign language and the occasional spoken word. Hey, it's San Francisco -- anything goes.
Reeves is deft at navigating the action, including lots of acrobatic chimp-vs.-chimp combat. There's an unnerving and exhilarating sequence in which those apes on horseback charge into the city from the forest, pissed as hell. Chimps and horses also stride, peacefully this time, through one of the picture's most majestic sequences, in which electrical power is restored to an old gas station. An excited human wastes no time cranking up the tunes: The song is the Band's version of "The Weight," and for a moment, apes and humans pause to take some pleasure in the sound, which drifts through the night like a laid-back cricket symphony.