Variety's Guy Lodge called the film "bleak but spectacular":
It’s always darkest before the dawn, goes the saying — but in resuming a franchise already suspended on a downbeat note, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” sees the simian revolution reaching unprecedented levels of bleak anarchy. An altogether smashing sequel to 2011′s better-than-expected “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” this vivid, violent extension of humanoid ape Caesar’s troubled quest for independence bests its predecessor in nearly every technical and conceptual department.
Writing in The Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy likens "Dawn" to "The Empire Strikes Back"--that is, better and smarter than the first installment:
A gripping account of interspecies conflict, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes manages to do at least three things exceptionally well that are hard enough to pull off individually: Maintain a simmering level of tension without letup for two hours, seriously improve on a very good first entry in a franchise and produce a powerful humanistic statement using a significantly simian cast of characters. In the annals of sequels, Dawn is to Rise of the Planet of the Apes what The Empire Strikes Back was to Star Wars— it’s that much better.
Hit Fix's Drew McWeeny sung the film's praises:
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.