For the second time in three weeks, Hollywood has offered us a summer blockbuster in which the CGI characters are more compelling than the human ones. Last time, it was Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction, which accomplished the feat by presenting us with human beings duller and less expressive than a box of Hasbro toys. Matt Reeves’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, by contrast, marks a far more singular achievement, rendering its titular apes with such nuance and sophistication that it is easy to forget they are constructed out of pixels.
The evidence that we are entering an age of post-human filmmaking has been gathering for some time: last year’s Pacific Rim, say, or this spring's Godzilla. Replace a Charlie Hunnam here or an Aaron Taylor-Johnson there with any comparably Cybexed alternative and who would notice? Even a star as effortlessly magnetic as Angelina Jolie was to some degree swallowed up by the effects deployed around her in Maleficent.
It is true that—as was the case with this movie’s precursor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes—the human cast of the sequel is not particularly indelible. Aussie Jason Clarke is, at least at this juncture in his career, a better actor than he is a movie star. (He should have been nominated for an Oscar for his role as “Dan” in Zero Dark Thirty.) Keri Russell is perfectly adequate, too (though not one-fifth as memorable as she is on The Americans), as are Kodi Smit-McPhee and a mostly-here-for-the-paycheck Gary Oldman.
But any shortcomings on the part of the movie’s homo sapiens are more than made up for by their simian costars. Going back to his Gollum days, Andy Serkis has been a pioneer—really, the pioneer—in the hybrid form that’s now known as “performance capture.” So it’s fitting that he returns to lend his voice-, face-, and body-work to Caesar, the hyper-intelligent chimpanzee he played in the prior film. (It’s fitting, too, that for once he gets top billing in the credits.) Precisely how one should divvy up credit for the performance between Serkis and his special-effects team at Weta Digital is hard to discern. (Likewise, for Serkis’s fellow ape actors.) But ultimately it’s beside the point: The performers and digital artists are so utterly, intimately in sync that there’s more than enough credit to go around.
When last we saw Caesar, he was leading his rag-tag ape army over the Golden Gate Bridge and into Muir Woods, while the viral drug that had given him his intellect was having the unfortunate side effect of spreading lethally throughout the human population. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up directly from that point, with a de rigeur bit of newscast exposition charting the progress of the plague: 5 million casualties, 150 million… There are meltdowns, both nuclear and social, and over the course of a decade (though only a few minutes of screen time) the human race is all but wiped out in the most perfunctory manner conceivable.