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.
Little matter: Following this tedious calamity, we’re introduced to the arboreal city-state Caesar and his friends have built among the redwoods. The set design is impeccable—their cliff-clinging home is built on the remains of an old 76 gas station off route 101—and the apes themselves are nothing short of a revelation. (Particularly magnificent is Caesar’s old orangutan buddy, Maurice, again played by Karin Konoval: Somewhere, Dr. Zaius is eating his heart out.) We witness the apes conversing with a combination of sign language, grunts, and occasional English words. We’re treated to a hunt with primitive spears, to the birth of a chimplet, and to a near-death by bear mauling. Mostly we just watch in awe as the apes lope majestically among the trees of Marin County. It’s actually a bit of a letdown when the human beings eventually show up.
But show up they do. A community of survivors has settled in the ruins of San Francisco and they send a small party, led by Malcolm (Clarke) and Ellie (Russell), to restart a hydroelectric dam in the apes’ territory in hopes of supplying power for the city. The plot that unfolds from this point will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Dances with Wolves, or Kingdom of Heaven, or Avatar, or any of a few dozen other movies about the need for peace and understanding between races/religions/species. There are decent, tolerant souls among human and ape alike, and there are also suspicious, warmongering bigots. (The latter camp supplies a role for Oldman on one side, and features Koba, the escaped laboratory bonobo from the last film, on the other.) I’d like to say there are many unexpected twists along the way, but the script hews rather scrupulously to formula.
That said, Reeves’s direction is crisp (he’s best known for 2008’s Cloverfield), the action sequences superb (keep an eye out for the scene in which Koba commandeers a tank), the Michael Giacchino score intense and evocative, and the apes—well, they’re easily worth the price of admission on their own. Reeves has signed on to direct and co-write a third installment of the franchise, and there are intimations at the film’s conclusion that it may again feature an all-new cast of human foils for Caesar and the gang. I can't help but think that it might be wiser still to forgo our species altogether and make the next movie all-ape. It is, after all, the logical next step in this particular cinematic evolution.