With Transformers: Age of Extinction dominating the box office it could be easy to despair for the modern blockbuster. A spate of big movies that also made you think – the likes of Inception, Looper and District 9 – seems to have slowed in favour of Marvel sequels and dodgy remakes. Then, from the mist, comes an ape riding on a horse, to save the summer, as Rise did in 2011.
In this, the second part of the “of the…of the” franchise, we pick up a few years after we left off with Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the apes living in a well-established society in the woods outside San Francisco. Caesar is the de facto ruler of the intelligent apes, who are happy to mind their own business in the forest while mankind wipes itself out with a pandemic it created. But some humans have survived and banded together under the leadership of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who venture into the hills to kick start a power turbine at a dam. The only problem is that a several thousand strong colony of super smart apes are sitting on top of it, many of whom bear more than a slight grudge against their former human oppressors.
This film boldly makes the apes the main characters, once again achieving the perfect balance of animal and human characteristics that made the first movie strike a chord with so many people. The apes communicate largely in grunts, growls and sign language, but lose none of their humanity, for want of a better word. The use of motion capture in making non humans believable and relateable reaches over the very high watermark of Avatar, and surpasses that film with story and characterisation as well.
The choices faced by characters, human and ape alike, feel like genuine dilemmas. The tough choices presented mean there is conflict without comic book villainy, in this immersive and believable world. This is the best ape society since The Jungle Book, and I love The Jungle Book.
There are stellar performances from the motion capture cast, who are clearly not disheartened or perturbed by having to show up to work in a morph suit every day. Gary Oldman is also good as asshole human Dreyfus, although that may be because we all know what an asshole he is in real life now.
The aesthetic of the film has developed from part 1, looking more naturalistic. In the post-apocalyptic city scenes it is reminiscent of Children of Men, and overall the lighting conditions that are more favourable to the CGI primates than the original.
But most importantly, it’s really gripping. We care about the apes, so when they get hurt we feel their pain. Emotional engagement is essential to enjoy a film like this. If you add first rate special effects, expert cinematography and thrilling action you have a brilliant summer blockbuster. Hail Caesar.