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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Review: Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (2024)

 Wes Ball
Starring: Owen Teague, Freya Allen, Kevin Durrand

When the "Caesar Trilogy" ended with War for the Planet of the Apes, I remarked that the end of that film played like a Biblical epic. The set of stories beginning here in Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes picks up that theme, with a title card directly likening Caesar to Jesus and then the remainder of the film continuing to push that idea in a very explicit way that informs some of the relationships and conflicts of the film. I'm not entirely sure that aspect works, but it gave me a lot to ponder as I walked out of Kingdom, a film that kept me engaged and entertained from beginning to end. While some of it definitely feels like a retread of War, that also makes it a nice, soft reentry into this world, giving the audience a sense of the familiar while introducing a host of new characters and establishing how this world has moved on from where we left it.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes opens several generations after the events of War for the Planet of the Apes. Director Wes Ball has claimed that it takes place 300 years later, though that seems quite impossible given the state of part of humanity and the state of the technology humanity has left behind, which couldn't just get up and running after turning on a switch after not being maintained for hundreds of years - but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The story begins with the eagle clan, a village of chimpanzees that includes Noa (Owen Teague), who along with his friends Anaya (Travis Jeffery) and Soona (Lydia Peckham), is preparing to undergo a coming of age ritual in which he becomes bonded with his own eagle. In preparation for the ceremony, the three friends climb high to search for eggs to claim, but when Noa's egg later breaks, he has to go searching for another one in time for the ritual. During his search, he comes across a group of raiders who've come from the other side of a tunnel that Noa and his clan are forbidden from exploring. Searching for someone, the raiders raze Noa's village, leaving him for dead and enslaving the remainder of his clan.

When he comes to, a guilt stricken Noa gathers his courage and heads off to explore the forbidden land in the hope of recovering his village and soon encounters Raka (Peter Macon), an orangutan who teaches Noa about Caesar, and Mae (Freya Allen), a human who has been following Noa and on whom Raka takes pity, thinking that she's just like all of the other humans left in the world. When the trio encounter a herd of humans, incapable of speech and living primitively, Noa is prepared to leave Mae with her kind, but is drawn back when the raiders attack, trying to capture Mae, who speaks for the first time when she calls Noa's name. He rescues her and they retreat with Raka, who is shocked to learn that there remains a human who can speak, having heard legends that humans and apes once lived side by side. Mae tells Noa that she knows where his clan was taken and the three set off towards what will turn out to the be kingdom of Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durrand), who has been enslaving clans in order to bring them under his control as members of his kingdom, and to force them into labor as he tries to break into the human vault which he claims will lead to instant evolution.

Like Raka, Proximus is a student of Caesar, though he's taken far different lessons from the legend. While Raka celebrates the peaceful Caesar who would not see apes kill other apes and has compassion for humans (the followers of this way of thinking wear a necklace bearing a symbol of their belief - sound familiar?), Proximus uses the legend of Caesar to justify his tyranny, twisting the "words" of Caesar to fit his own ambitions. Since no one from Caesar's time is still living, no one can say which side has the right idea and both can claim that they're the "true" believers working to achieve Caesar's "true" purpose. It's an interesting premise - although disheartening to think that the apes would rise just to repeat humanity's conflicts over religion - but even though the idea of Caesar as a Jesus figure whose legend divides his followers is pushed throughout the film, it ultimately never really becomes much more than an idea. The film doesn't really explore this source of conflict among the apes fully, focusing instead on the still ongoing conflict between apes and humans. At some point, perhaps, we'll get a movie that's an all apes affair, but the series just isn't ready to move on from humans yet.

In a story where ape factions are standing in for sects of Christianity, the humans are the Roman Empire - albeit one that's already collapsed, even if it hasn't quite given up. Proximus is himself a student of Roman history, courtesy of his human tutor (William H. Macy), and believes that what's inside the human vault will unlock the secrets that will allow apes to leap forward in their evolution, bringing them out of the period of technological collapse that followed the fall of humanity (a dark age not unlike that that followed the collapse of the Western Roman Empire). Although his methods are bad, Proximus' goal is ultimately to pull the apes to a new standard of living and this is where the film gets a little conflicted about itself. Proximus is the bad guy and stories require that bad guys be defeated, and yet he's also right when he warns Noa that he can't trust humans, especially Mae. Mae, who knows what the vault contains, is determined not to let the apes get it and in a confrontation with Macy's character, she declares herself to be the human who isn't helping the apes. But the reason Mae is able to do what she ultimately does is because she received help from some of the apes - apes she is then fully prepared to betray. Her triumph can only feel muted when we're so thoroughly embedded in the point of view of the apes and rooting for them.

Based on where this film ends up, one can well imagine that the next couple of films will deal with the final showdown between apes and humans (though wasn't that what War was supposed to be?). I have to admit that I'm not all that invested in the human/ape conflict at this point and would much rather see how the apes begin developing the society that eventually leads to the original film (assuming that the new series is working its way up to that point, and not going in some other direction), but nevertheless I've never felt bored while watching one of these movies. It seems redundant at this point to mention how great the effects work is, so thoroughly have these films imbued these computer generated characters with humanity, but this is truly a beautifully rendered film, from the ape characters themselves, to the cityscapes that have been reclaimed by nature and the rusted out ship setting of Proximus' kingdom. Its a world you can truly sink into as Noa undertakes his hero's journey and it's two and a half hours just fly by.

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