MOVIES: Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes – Review

Spoilers

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes reaches for the stars as director Wes Ball takes over the franchise from Matt Reeves for a supercharged sequel that takes place in a post Caesar era, where his reputation has become something of a myth and legend. It’s an apes world now with the human survivors sparse and rendered unable to speak. In this new entry in the franchise, Noa, an Ape part of a peaceful clan of eagle-protectors and trainers, masters of birds, finds himself the last free Ape of his clan who are slaughtered by a vicious warrior clan led by Proximus, an Ape heavily influenced by the Roman Empire and modelling Ceasar’s teachings on a warped extremist viewpoint that puts apes in service of other apes.

It’s a similar structure of power to the Scar King in Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire, with Proximus having damaged and twisted Caesar’s reputation to the point that Noa is afraid of his teachings. But so too have the humans been driven by a need to survive, and a conflict between them and the apes seems inevitable when Mae, Freya Allen’s human character and the sole speaking human for much of the film, reveals her mission. The bond of Mae and Noa that is initially formed, two struggling survivors of Ape and Human, asks the question – can they both work together? I really like how the film makes it clear that they can’t be sure whether they can fully trust each other, but are willing to work together for a common goal. Are they friends? not yet – and they may never be – but their bond between species is a rare one.

That has been explored in the past films before but not to the same degree. This is multiple decades later, it feels like a strong response to the legacy sequels that have come out over the years and how their reputation has been manipulated. After a slow start – the consequences of having to build an entire world; Kingdom finally gets going into its core themes proper – the film feels like a representation of what happens when that legacy perspective becomes bigger than one individual person. You have those who exist to remind the world of Caesar’s purpose, but are failing – a direct parallel is made between those who twist religion to their own ends to the point that the messaging isn’t very subtle, there’s a reason why Noa is called Noa after all, the meaning of the film feels very biblical especially when you get to the encampment that Proximus calls his home. His decision to be a fan of the Roman Empire and taking in all the wrong messages from it feels like a direct conscious choice by director Wes Ball, who takes what he has learnt from his experience working on the pretty solid YA Maze Runner trilogy, and turns it into something exciting and special.

The visuals in this film feel like a direct response to the success of Avatar: The Way of Water, a trailer that purposely hid a lot of interesting stuff from the audience, the third act we were left largely unaware of until it actually got going in both cases. The involvement of Raka causes things to kick up a notch as there’s a lot of video game aesthetic here early on – maybe a tester for Wes Ball’s upcoming Zelda adaption? – and by the time we get to the end of Kingdom we see its real face reveal tons of tension that has been simmering under the surface of the film – this franchise has previously been at its best when it has recognised that it has always been about more than just ape vs human, but ape vs ape and human vs human, and whilst the latter doesn’t play a significant role here there are core ape vs ape dynamics and the structural messaging really gives hope to a film with solid depth. If anything it’s a bit too much of a step away from that dynamic that anchored Matt Reeves’ instalments together – heading the film in the directions of the original series rather than moving the franchise forward. But at the same time there’s a lot of juice here that Kingdom grapples with – ambitious and devastating in equal measure – think the approach to Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens, which Kingdom treats with the same amount of reverence.

I’m a huge fan of what the VFX artists have done here both on the character work and the world-building, it looks fantastic and visually arresting the way few other major blockbuster films have done this year apart from maybe, Dune Chapter Two. The landscapes are simple yet made full of life and bustling energy, and it feels designed to be seen on the biggest screen possible – I made the call to pay for the IMAX uplift for Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes and it revels in the film’s success because of that – watching the walls come crashing down gave the final act a real sense of spectacle and accomplishment. If only the film hadn’t taken that long to get there!

Noa’s journey feels like the start of Caesar’s – optimism crushed and then rebuilt, and a strong performance by Owen Teague really makes up for the absence of Andy Serkis which is no tall order; he was incredible in the previous films as Ceasar. Several decades later is no small amount of a time difference to get to grips with and Kingdom succeeds in accomplishing this – it feels like a world alienated from our own, and I’d love a video game created in this world in a similar way to the Avatar one that came out last year.

Kingdom becomes a true spectacle – enough fresh ideas even if dimmuted from the depth of the previous trilogy to make it feel like a new film, the fascinating focus of cherrypicked ideas from Ceasar’s legacy makes it a strong ideological narrative that provides the driving factor of the film. Perhaps most impressive is the motion capture that brings the apes to life – and in a year of ape cinema, Kingdom might be one of the best. What a wonderful day, indeed.

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