(CNN) -- "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is already making critics cheer.
The follow-up to 2011's surprise hit "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" won't open until July 11, but early reviews and strong box office predictions are setting it up for a splashy debut.
As the sequel to "Rise," "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" takes place 10 years following the events of that 2011 movie. In this future existence, the apes, led by Andy Serkis' Caesar, have built a functioning society in the woods of California's Bay Area, while humans have suffered a severe blow from a global virus.
When the survivors stumble upon the apes' community, there's an initial attempt to keep the peace, but it isn't long before the dawn of a war.
In addition to Serkis, who received plenty of praise for his work in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," "Dawn" also stars Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman and Keri Russell. Interestingly, it's not the human cast that's really driven critics bananas.
"Few blockbusters this summer are likely to provide an image as stirring as an angry chimp on horseback, leaping through a wall of fire with a machine gun blazing in each hand -- in 3D," The Guardian's review begins. "Both the forest settings and post-apocalyptic San Francisco are rich in detail and atmosphere, the action sequences are thrilling without being flashy, and the apes themselves are uncannily expressive, particularly their eyes. ... We've arrived at the stage where the soulful expression on the face of a virtual chimp can conjure more sympathy than a real, emoting human."
HitFix's Drew McWeeny goes as far as to call "Dawn" one of the best movies of 2014, thanks to its combination of digital expertise and talented direction from Matt Reeves.
While McWeeny entered his screening just wanting "a solid and respectful follow-up," what he got instead was "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 the effort to make the apes as realistic as possible "pushed performance into a whole new realm," McWeeny continues. "It's one thing to pull off one or two characters like this, but ... 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."
To put it another way, "'Dawn' is to 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' what 'The Empire Strikes Back' was to 'Star Wars' --- it's that much better," says The Hollywood Reporter. "[D]irector Matt Reeves' synthesis of brains and brawn kicks it over the goalposts and out of the stadium ... Whatever anyone might think about the film as a whole, there is no question that Andy Serkis gives the most expressive, soulful, deeply felt performance of a non-human character the big screen has ever offered as the mature Caesar."
With praise like that, it's no wonder box office prognosticators are imagining huge returns when "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" opens on July 11. According to Variety, many observers believe "Dawn" will easily grab a $54.8 million opening, with BoxOffice.com placing its bets that "Dawn's" first weekend will land close to $70 million.
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