In what is essentially the fourth new beginning in the Planet of the Apes franchise and the tenth film overall, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes has the difficult task of not only following-up the critically acclaimed and well-liked Caesar trilogy but establishing a new cast of characters for audiences to care about and maybe more critically - to root for. The fascinating thing about this franchise in particular is that it has no one anchor, no single selling point, but more it relies on each films ideas and themes to be the main attraction. These are blockbusters built on allegory, delivering spectacle to fulfill the experiential aspect of movie-going, but largely crafted for the purposes of the conversations that will take place afterward. In director Wes Ball's (the Maze Runner trilogy) re-boot each of these factors are in place to meet the aforementioned requirements of both entertainment value and parable-like storytelling, but much like with the previous two Matt Reeves films (my hot take regarding the Caesar trilogy is that Rupert Wyatt's film is actually the best of them) these frameworks for what these films intend to do and be end up mostly being only that: a structure. In Kingdom specifically, the themes themselves are such repeats of ideas and concepts this franchise has touched upon before that it almost feels the series is becoming that of which it is analyzing a la the cyclical nature of society - the triumphs and failures destined to collide with the systems put in place to try and form some type of order no matter the dominant species.

Mae AKA Nova (Freya Allan) is the last of a dying breed, fighting for survival in Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.
Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2024 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Further, the center of this new series of films will seem to hang on the leadership and development spurned by Noa (Owen Teague) as well as the actions and perseverance of Mae AKA Nova (Freya Allan). While the film opens with the funeral of Caesar from the previous trilogy, we are quickly ushered many generations down the road where apes have dispersed into different clans while humans are sparse and have seemingly been reduced to our neanderthal beginnings. Noa's tribe appears to mirror that of the culture of many Native American tribes, emphasizing harmony with nature and fellow apes, instilling a social structure with rites of passage, and protocols for nurturing and developing individual roles while showing immense respect for the elders of the clan. In the opening sequence Noa along with friends Soona (Lydia Peckham) and Anaya (Travis Jeffery) are preparing for a coming-of-age ceremony by each collecting an eagle egg. The point being, Noa's very tribalistic clan is inherently different than the gorillas he encounters later after realizing a human who turns out to be Allan's Mae has followed him and his friends back to their village. These gorillas upon horseback clearly looking for this human carry weapons that expel electricity and wear masks to conceal who they are (always a clear sign of some deep-seeded humiliation). Upon locating Noa's village, this band of gorillas burn it to the ground in hopes of forcing Mae out of hiding, but all Noa sees is the devastation to his livelihood and the great loss he suffers. It is fundamental to the story that we learn Noa's father, Koro (Neil Sandilands), is a "master of birds" which is something Noa's tribe deeply cherishes and both a title and skill that he has not inherited. Ball's film and Josh Friedman's ('05's War of the Worlds and Avatar: The Way of Water) screenplay provide this framework (there's that word again) for Noa's progression from simply proving himself to him finding his purpose, but what would appear to be the plight of the film, the main character's arc even - quickly becomes the least interesting thing about it.

This more focused, almost character study-like approach is a refreshing starting point considering the majority of the Apes films tend to center their attention around the vast, world and/or civilization-ending stakes at the heart of each one. And Kingdom is different considering we know this is not the beginning of the end but the beginning of thousands of more years of evolution for these ape civilizations. Of course, a story needs conflict of some kind and Noa's internal struggle to live up to his father's expectations is not going to be enough for a $160 million major studio summer tentpole and thus the bigger dissension comes into play as do the bigger themes around religion, race, corruption, and of course...war. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes quickly transitions into a man (or ape) on-the-run style thriller as Noa along with his newly found Orangutan friend Raka (Peter Macon) - a true stand-out bound to be an audience favorite - and Mae must stay ahead of the raiders on horseback who are after them because of their belief Mae is the key to unlocking an old human vault at the site where they have settled where they have also taken the surviving members of Noa's clan. The seeds of Kingdom's biggest themes are planted through Raka's dedication to the philosophies of Caesar and his disdain for how this growing band of chimpanzees and gorillas are beginning to twist said teachings and values for their own purposes and see where this is going. And though we've visited such themes not only in this franchise before, but countless times throughout our own history and within the history of the arts it is fascinating just how endlessly fascinating the examination of behavioral patterns always are. As Noa and Mae are ultimately captured and taken to this settlement led by self-proclaimed king, Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), the distinction between the noble and the egotistical becomes less and less evident with both sides' objectives becoming less and less defined by the never so clear parameters of good and bad.

Proximus Caesar (voiced by Kevin Durand) is a self-proclaimed King eager to understand the past ways of man.
Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

The Planet of the Apes
films are a movie series of very notable "moments" whether it be in the early film's twist endings or when Andy Serkis' Caesar spoke for the first time, it is in these small moments that we find indicators of massive shifts in how the world could/will change moving forward. Kingdom features a nice kind of inverse on hearing Caesar speak for the first time and these moments featuring Allan's character both assessing and coming to better understand the extent of what the world around her has become are extremely layered in hindsight - no doubt adding even more depth on repeat viewings, but it is actually the reaction and comprehension of the apes in Kingdom that signal the bigger understandings of perception and cultural shifts that are most impactful. Whether this be in Noa's combined emotions of astoundment and depression upon realizing a certain character's deception or when Noa, Soona, and Anaya come to understand just how advanced humans once were after breaking into the aforementioned vault only to realize the humans wanted the same for different reasons is something else; truly the filmmaking, performance, and storytelling pinnacle of this particular odyssey. 

What the execution of these scenes are working in service of is admirable especially considering that execution includes gorillas riding horses and electrocuting enemies in sweeping action scenes within a movie heavy on political allegory, but while these films seemingly purport to have the best of both worlds the allegory and allusions never feel - at least in the Reeves films and this one - as if they reach a level high enough to transcend the action/genre elements into something akin to genuine enlightenment. One might say the quality and merging of the ape animation with that of the natural settings at this stage of the game is enough to serve as true enlightenment and I wouldn't necessarily argue the point - it's breathtaking on the big screen - but while this depiction of Proximus as a character who yearns for knowledge from the past in order to conduct the future, who takes lessons and warnings from a human in William H. Macy's Trevathan, and who is positioned as the ultimate antagonist but is more complicated than Noa gives him credit for the screenplay itself doesn't give these facets their due diligence despite closing in on the two and a half hour mark. The fact Proximus doesn't appear until nearly an hour and a half into the film is an inherent flaw, but that this character then becomes the axis on which the majority of the film's themes turn only make said flaw more obvious. Yes, the concluding, triumphant moment featuring Noa is just that and the final minutes with the humans intrigues viewers with where the franchise might go from here, but as far as continuing to carve out the details of the ancient stories between Caesar's birth and George Taylor's arrival Kingdom could certainly be more mythic and memorable.

No comments:

Post a Comment