The appeal of surprise 2011 hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes was that Hollywood had made a movie with a largely silent, motion-captured performance that eclipsed any of its human characters. The fact that it felt like a propulsive blockbuster without leaning on empty, over-the-top action scenes was even more impressive. Matt Reeves' follow-up Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes all of that promise and expands on it mightily, delivering a robustly-told story of our sad tendency to escalate towards violence, even when armed with all our supposed intelligence.

We left our hyper-intelligent ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) in the California redwoods at the end of Rise, having smarted up a bunch of captive apes with a virus designed by James Franco's character. Ten years on, that virus has wiped out most of humanity while the apes continue to flourish; when a band of survivors in San Francisco try to negotiate their way into fixing a dam in the apes' territory to help restore power, things get immediately tricky. Dawn's problem is that you know things are going to go wrong—our human hero Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is a well-meaning man, and Caesar is smart enough to want to avoid war, but each side has its twitchier factions who don't trust any truce to hold.

Reeves did a fine job on his last two features (Cloverfield and Let Me In) but Dawn is definitely a step up. The opening scenes, where we just spend time with the apes hunting and returning for their home, are pretty remarkable both in how quiet they are (the apes communicate by signing) and how seamlessly they blend in the motion-capture technology. Even if you keep thinking about what went in to creating the performances, they feel incredibly vivid. Then the humans show up, some of them toting guns, and Caesar's right hand Koba (Toby Kebbell) begins agitating for the apes to stop them from rebuilding, remembering the torture he suffered as one of their lab-rats.

As I mentioned—you know where it's all heading. But Dawn is not interested in staging conflict for the sake of it, and the misunderstandings and tensions that drive the plot don't always feel like contrivances. We understand why Koba resents the human presence even before he discovers their cache of weapons, and we get why colony leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman, intense but not quite as over-the-top nuts as the trailers made him seem) can't let go of the trauma of his family being wiped out by simian flu.

When the violence explodes, Reeves makes sure we feel the impact. The time we spend in the ape colony at the beginning of the film makes the introduction of guns feel that much worse. Dawn's most successful and chilling action sequence sees a group of apes staging an attack with automatic weapons, which they use clumsily to begin with, but quickly begin to figure out. It's that rare action movie set-piece that has weight and purpose to it. The hopeful concept behind Caesar's ape utopia, and his efforts to negotiate peace, are not exactly presented as foolish, but the same pitfalls that befall any civilization are there.

You might have gleaned from all this that Dawn isn't exactly a fun, rollicking ride—it finds a few tranquil moments, but is largely a tense experience pointing towards a dark, fatalistic, open-ended conclusion. And for its (and Caesar's) even-handedness, it's hard to root for the humans here, who are not as deeply represented. Clarke holds our focus whenever he's on screen (does he still count as an underrated actor after his terrific work in Zero Dark Thirty?) but Keri Russell, playing his wife and a former CDC worker, gets nothing to do, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as his son just makes moony eyes at people and draws in a notebook.

Reeves succeeds in fully realizing his dystopia but, much as with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the film begins and ends with Caesar, and wanders a little in his absence. It's fitting, really—the simian society displayed is so hierarchical, so why shouldn't the audience's attention also hinge on its leader? Not to discount the wonderful efforts of Kebbell, Judy Greer, Nick Thurston and Karin Konoval among others, who fill out the ape ensemble, but Serkis and the Weta Digital wizards are certainly doing some magical things with Caesar.

Reeves is directing the next installment, and given the ending of this film, one wonders where he's pointing his story. Dawn concludes with dark clouds gathering and the inhumanity of both man and ape laid bare, but at the same time, it's not quite as bleak as that all sounds. That's Reeves' main achievement, along with his performers and technical team. It's no easy feat to end a movie the way this one does and leave an audience feeling satisfied, but Dawn is involving enough to allow for a lot of moral ambiguity and open-endedness.