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Review: Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

Published: at 02:22 PM

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: in an isolated and pastoral land, a tribe lives a life of peace and harmony with nature. When an intrusion from the outside world brings danger to the tribe, one of its young members must embark on a dangerous journey to save their people. By the end of their quest, they’ve met a whole cast of interesting characters, overcome many challenges, and learned important lessons about the nature of the world… and themselves.

I hope you didn’t actually stop me, since I’m sure that you have heard that one many, many times. So have I. At the start of Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, it seemed like I was about to hear it again, and I resigned myself to the disappointment that accompanied that recognition. After all, the Planet of the Apes trilogy that began with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a creative success that completely demolished my expectations. After disarming the audience with the almost farcical premise, director Matt Reeves subverted our expectations and delivered a powerful exploration of cost, futility, and inevitability war — one of the best I’ve ever seen. I feared Kingdom, directed by series newcomer Wes Ball, was going to exchange that thoughtful storytelling for a familiar “hero’s journey”. Willow with chimps.

While my early impressions weren’t exactly wrong, they weren’t complete. Woven into the story are some of the themes that made the previous movies so affecting.

Kingdom also ties back to its predecessors literally. It opens with a brief recap of the trilogy, emphasizing how Caesar, the first super-intelligent ape, led the other apes to freedom, taught them the core tenets of ape society (“Ape not kill ape. Ape together strong.”), and ultimately sacrificed his life to ensure the survival of his ape brethren.

The story then picks up “many generations later,” when we meet the protagonist Noa (Owen Teague), a chimp from an isolated tribe whose culture is centered on the training of Golden Eagles. They don’t know anything about Caesar, but they learn of his existence all too soon when a band of horse-riding apes attack the Noa’s village, wielding advanced weapons and declaring their actions to be “For Caesar!”

After the invaders abduct Noa’s tribe, leaving him for dead, his quest is clear: he must venture into the lands outside his familiar valley, track down the invaders, and rescue his people. Along the way, he meets the companions that will accompany him on his journey.

The first companion is Raka (Peter Macon), an orangutan who follows the teachings of Caesar as passed down through his brotherhood of believers. Raka’s understanding of Caesar is much closer to the truth than that of the warlike apes. Even so, his version is full of holes and misunderstandings, as oral histories so often are.

The second companion is a human girl (Freya Allan) that Raka dubs “Nova.” Nova does not speak — in the time of Caesar, a virus robbed humans of their voices — but there are clues that she might be somehow different from any human that the apes have encountered before.

What elevates Kingdom above its standard fantasy tropes is the way its worldbuilding is revealed through conflict. Apes fight apes. Apes fight humans. Humans fight humans. Through it all, the nature of these overlapping fights reveals a world of contrasts and complications that preclude a simple “good versus evil” narrative.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is not the same as Rise of, Dawn of, or War for the Planet of the Apes, and it comes across as weaker by comparison. But taken on its own merits as a story in a different genre (or at least a different sub-genre) than those earlier movies, it holds up admirably.

One of the most powerful shots in the movie comes during near the end, after the central crisis has been resolved. Two characters face each other, keeping a bit of distance between them. We’ve seen these characters travel together for most of the movie. They’ve survived danger together, saved each other’s lives, and worked together to defeat a common enemy. By traditional story logic, especially in a fantasy story, they should be lifelong friends at this point. But, to quote Lemony Snickett, “That’s not how the story goes.” A brief glimpse of a hand gripping a concealed weapon is all we need to know that these two will never be Legolas and Gimli; this broken world will never be fully unbroken.