One of the words that was used most frequently when describing "Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes" was "surprise," and with good reason. After all, the previous attempt to bring the long-running science-fiction franchise back to life was a nightmare, a truly terrible film that is a narrative disaster even among the narrative disasters that mark many of Tim Burton's lesser films. It seemed like Fox had limped along trying to get an "Apes" movie made for so long that they were willing to try anything.

Scott Frank came close to getting a film make called "Caesar," and it sounded like he was on the right track. His basic idea started with a Fox-mandated remake of "Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes," but went in a very different direction. His film was designed to be a hard-science story about what might happen if we made the advance in genetic modification that would lead to apes that spoke and thoughts the same way we do, and he researched the state of the art of motion-capture and character animation.

This was around the end of 2008, the start of 2009, and when he moved on, Fox must have remained excited about the basic idea. Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver pitched their own origin movie, using alzheimer's research as the jumping-off point, and they ended up writing the film that Rupert Wyatt directed. That film, featuring a performance by Andy Serkis as Caesar, wasn't the biggest box-office hit of 2011, but it was a film that was respected and liked and that people were pleasantly delighted by, something that almost always ends up creating more passionate fans. It's one thing when we've all got some pop culture icon jammed down our throats. Even when it's done well, it feels pre-packaged. But when something that we aren't expecting wins us over, we tend to be much more passionate about it.

Walking in to "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes," I hoped Matt Reeves had made a solid and respectful follow-up, one that expanded on "Rise" in interesting ways. That's all I wanted from it. What I got instead is a film that digs deep, that challenges not only the notion of what a studio blockbuster looks like but also how sequels are supposed to work in a commercial world, a movie about real ideas with a spectacular sense of character and mood. "Dawn" is not just a good genre movie or a good summer movie. It's a great science-fiction film, full-stop, and one of the year's very best movies so far.

It's been ten years since the events that ended "Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes," and the simian flu that was just starting to spread in the final moments of that movie has killed off a majority of the human life on Earth, plunging the world into a new dark age. It's a bleak world if you're a human being, but the film doesn't start by showing us humans. Instead, we see how the apes have flourished in those ten years. They have built a home for themselves, and they are building a culture on the ashes of the human world. It's been over two years since they've even seen a single human being, and they're fine with that.

Caesar, once again played by Andy Serkis, has united the rest of the apes, and the world that they've made for themselves is impressive, balanced, peaceful. Several of the apes from the first film are back, like the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), the loyal chimp Rocket (Terry Notary), and Cornelia (Judy Greer), who is now Caesar's wife, the mother to his two children, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and a brand-new baby. From the film's opening close-up on Caesar's eyes to the final frames of the story, the apes are front and center, and WETA Digital has pushed performance into a whole new realm with the work they do here. It's one thing to pull off one or two characters like this, but to lean as heavily as they do here on the digital team to bring to life dozens of characters, and to have them all register as fully as they do here, is a remarkable accomplishment. Add to that the idea that so much of this was shot outside, on real locations, and you end up with something that destroys any boundaries in terms of what can or can't be done at this point.

The script by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback is about what violence does to communities, so while it is indeed an action film at times, and there are some thrillingly staged sequences that director Matt Reeves has imagined, I found myself actively rooting against any action in the film simply because I cared about all the characters enough that I didn't want to see any of them, human or ape, end up in harm's way, and it's obvious from early in the film that things are not going to end well. Once a human community, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) comes into contact with Caesar's apes, tragedy seems inevitable, and it's awful to watch it unfold.

Awful and brilliant, because Reeves expertly keeps twisting the knife, pushing everyone along their collision course. The greatest tension in the movie is between Caear and Koba, and Toby Kebbell's work (he's stepping in for Christopher Gordon, who played the part in the first film) is fantastic. I love the physical design for Koba. He's the chimp who replaced Caesar as the primary test subject once they started working on ALZ-113 in the second half of the film, all scarred up and obviously used to the routine of being cut and poked and tortured. In this film, it's obvious that he is thrilled to be free of any and all human influence, but that he was left damaged in more ways that the external, and the anger that had no focus once the humans vanished grows far more incendiary and metastasizes once humans reappear. It consumes him, and he simply can't see any good in them the way Caesar does. While Serkis continues to demonstrate how rich and interesting an actor he is, and Caesar is certainly as rich in this film as any human role I've seen anyone play all year, it's Kebbel who is the remarkable surprise here. Between the two of them, I could have watched an entire film that didn't even deal with human beings, which seems to me to be a pretty amazing development.

Michael Seresin is a cinematographer with a long and fascinating resume. I adore his work with Alan Parker on films like "Fame," "Midnight Express," "Shoot The Moon," and the beautiful "Birdy." His "Harry Potter and the Prisoner Of Azkaban" work might be the prettiest of the entire franchise. But with "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes," I feel like he's topped his best prior work. It's a painterly film, etching a memorable portrait of a world that has moved on from mankind, and especially in combination with the remarkable production design by James Chunlund. I've seen plenty of beautifully designed movies, but I get the feeling looking at the work here that everything has a purpose. Everything feels like it is authentically lived in, organically evolved as part of a living culture or devolved from a dying one. And Michael Giacchino's score is one of his finest, which is saying something based on how many amazing pieces of work he's created over the last seventeen years. Rich and beautiful and hugely emotional, I would compare it to the best work of Maurice Jarre. It's a mature piece of composition and orchestration, a perfect companion to the unconventionally beautiful film that Reeves has created.

When you see how the film concludes, look back at the trailers. There was a much bigger action movie ending originally planned, but instead, Reeves brought everything back to a much more personal place. It's a film that treats the entire concept of "Planet Of The Apes" as well as it's ever been treated, and it feels to me like he's set the table for a very different series of films than we've seen from any big summer movie franchise. This is something that not only comments on who we are, but that dares to ask questions about who we can be and whether or not we deserve our stewardship of this planet. I'm not only impressed, but deeply moved, and this is the first of this summer's movies that I not only need to see again immediately, but that I know immediately is going to be a major part of science-fiction fandom permanently. Heartbreaking and harrowing, "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes" is as good as big-budget science-fiction gets, technically dazzling and emotionally demanding.

"Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes" opens in theaters everywhere July 11, 2014.