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'Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes' Review

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May 8, 2024
Hunter Friesen
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Dubbed by many as the “thinking man’s action franchise,” the Planet of the Apes films has garnered itself quite high esteem over the years. What started as a single above-average 60s sci-fi blockbuster quickly became a cash-grab franchise, complete with a failed reboot at the turn of the millennium by Tim Burton. A balance of brain and brawn was finally met with Rise of the Planet of the Apes a decade later, followed by two excellent sequels (Dawn and War) that proved to be the exception to the rule of the dumbed-down CGI-heavy summer blockbuster. The momentum was too hot to put a cold towel over, prompting a continuation in Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (the perfect title for critics striving to hit a certain word count). And just like they proved the doubters over the past decade, Kingdom rises above the notion that it’s an unnecessary addition, as it reaches for newer relevant themes in a world turned upside down.

The central ape of the modern reboot trilogy, Caesar, has now passed, with his legend taking different forms in the many generations to follow. Earth is still an ape-dominant world, with them talking in semi-complete sentences and harnessing the power of other animals (eagles, horses, etc.) to progress their clans. It’s a feudal time of several clans all living disparately, one of them being a group of eagle herders deep within the jungle. A young ape named Noa (Owen Teague) knows that there is more to the world than the arbitrary borders his clan elders have drawn. But instead of a great journey inspired by self-discovery, Noa’s adventure is spurred by warring ape factions that seek to dominate and enslave others.

The motivation for these aggressive apes is the deification of Caesar into a Christlike figure. Led by Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), who sees himself as the second-coming of the messiah, are essentially medieval crusaders, fighting to purify the land. “Apes together strong” has become one of their commandments, only this time it’s been twisted to brainwash apes into indentured servitude as there isn’t a common enemy in the form of humans, with only a few left who are intelligent enough to speak.

Writer Josh Friedman keeps the brain of Kingdom firing at all times, holding up a mirror to the apes just as much as it does to all of human history. The words of Caesar have now become copies of copies of copies, with the loss of meaning being replaced by control and lust to grab hold of the power they possess. While it may sometimes over-explain itself, there’s a lot to appreciate in the moment and the many moments after the lights have gone up.

In conjunction with Friedman, who is working from a foundation laid by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, the writers of Rise who James Cameron has recruited to help steer his Avatar films, is director Wes Ball, now also taking a few inspirations from that particular blue franchise. This is a new world from the time of Caesar, with Ball relishing in the time needed to relearn its environment and culture. There’s a patient rhythm to the storytelling, with just as many quiet moments of introspection as there are moments of shrieking bombastic.

The overall production qualities are still top-notch, even if they are a mild step down from what director Matt Reeves was able to accomplish with his two most recent entries. The rich, natural colors of War have been replaced with an overly lit palette, and the ape CGI is slightly less expressive in the facial area. And the excellently underappreciated work by composer Michael Giacchino is sorely missing. It doesn’t feel like the highest form of criticism to simply compare the previous films to this new one, but it’s nearly impossible to avoid it after the bar has been set so memorably high.

Under all that digital fur are some quality actors, notably Teague as our new hero. It must be catnip for an actor to inhabit a role such as this, especially after Andy Serkis revolutionized and displayed to the world just how seriously the craft of motion capture performing should be taken. There are real emotions on display, with Teague and his other ape castmates deserving just as much credit as the visual effects department. There’s also Freya Allan as the intelligent human Mae, who serves as the main catalyst for the debate over whether humanity has the right to take back that they once held a several millennia-long grip over.

That debate will surely rattle on and become more intensive in the successive sequels, which will have the opportunity to follow the same trajectory of the previous sequels by improving on an already solid start. There’s also the possibility that they drag over the same terrain that we’ve become accustomed to. But this franchise hasn’t done us wrong for a while now, so I’ll let the side of optimism take over for the time being. It’s a nice feeling to have, and not one I take for granted.

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