Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (2024)

Around ninety minutes into Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, the teenager seated in front of me fell asleep. I’m getting to an age now where you might expect this to be one of those “kids these days” anecdotes, but with Kingdom I couldn’t help feeling like maybe this kid had a point. You won’t find too many moviegoers who love the Apes films quite like I do – one of them is even on my Personal Canon list – but after ten films I’m starting to feel like enough is enough.
Three hundred years after the time of Caesar, Noa (Owen Teague) sets off to rescue his clan of chimpanzees from the militaristic Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand) when he discovers that he is being followed by a human woman (Freya Allan). On the advice of the spiritual orangutan Raka (Peter Macon), Noa allows the woman to travel with him to Proximus’s kingdom, where the battle for Caesar’s legacy will be fought.
Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is the tenth or fourth film in the franchise, depending on how you count, with another two to five being teased/threatened. When I went back and reviewed the original Apes films a few years ago, the thing that struck me was how the series never idled in place, continually reinventing itself from sci-fi fable to fish-out-of-water comedy to race war allegory. The Andy Serkis trilogy from the last decade pushed the envelope of digital technology while finding a new storytelling corner, and even Tim Burton’s swing-and-a-miss was at least cosmetically compelling. With Kingdom, though, the franchise appears to have run out of things to say; its protagonist looks almost identical to Caesar, the premise seems cribbed from previous episodes, and the film is littered with callbacks while dangling morsels for future installments.
Case in point, there’s a moment late in the film – and this is not quite a spoiler – in which one of the apes leafs through the pages of a children’s book and makes a startling discovery about the past relationship between man and ape. It ought, we assume, to recolor the dynamic between the film’s simian and human protagonists, yet the film’s finale punts that work of narrative dot-connecting downfield for the probable sequel. Meanwhile, another ape in the same room picks up a baby doll, which cries “Mama” in precisely the same audio track used in the 1968 original film. When Charlton Heston picked up the doll, it managed to warp the entire plot around its gravity; when an ape picks up this doll, it’s meaningless bait on the fishing line of nostalgia. (Or are we meant to believe that this cliffside setting in southern California somehow becomes the New York-adjacent cave where Heston finds the doll?)
It’s as if director Wes Ball can be felt reaching through the screen imploring us, “Don’t you remember? Didn’t you like this last time?” Equally striking are the moments when composer John Paesano invokes Jerry Goldsmith’s original score. One cue, airlifted from the first film’s hunting sequence, is a clear one-to-one analogy; when apes hunt humans, evidently they listen to this sonorous horn music. Later, however, Paesano borrows another track from Goldsmith (which I’ll confess, I really recognized because it’s the one looped on the disc menus for the Blu-Ray set). Cribbing Goldsmith, Paesano invokes the same strange mystery of Doctor Zaius’s Forbidden Zone; at the same time, Ball stages the trek to wander past orphic scarecrows without reflecting on their mysteries. Indeed, without Heston’s puzzled narration ringing in my ears, I might not have known these were scarecrows at all.
All of this is to say that the movie might be supremely distracting for diehard fans, because the film itself is entirely underwhelming and, dare I say it, more than a little boring. After four movies of this reboot franchise, the razzle-dazzle of motion capture has worn off, and everything looks fine enough. I did find myself asking, in the moments when apes play falconer, whether the birds were real, and extended sequences of soggy monkeys made me recognize that animated water physics haven’t ever really surpassed the mastery of, say, the moment in Pixar’s Brave when Merida’s hair gets wet. (Indeed, Kingdom seems a step backwards in that respect.) But the rival ape factions, the peaceable overgrown vistas, the warmongering gorillas, the humans who know more than they’re letting on... we’ve been telling these stories for fifty years and have already plumbed these depths. And in 300 years, ape language hasn’t progressed beyond broken English? Maurice Evans, eat your heart out. Again, these are minor details that caught my eye because the film at large wasn’t holding my attention.
There are ideas in Kingdom that might be worth exploring, but it takes entirely too long to encounter them. The antagonist Proximus Caesar isn’t seen until more than halfway through the film (about the time that the young man in Row K checked out), and the glimpses we get of his reign suggest a more fascinating movie we didn’t get to see. Ditto for William H. Macy, who (in spite of a mildly cartoonish performance) poses a unique moral quandary about human collusion with their ape overlords. Yet Kingdom is overlong and baggy in other less interesting places; while I was intrigued by Raka as the last of the Caesar loyalists (sympathizing, perhaps, with a fellow redhead), the film is much less absorbed with him, focusing instead on Noa, a protagonist as white-bread as anything found in populist young adult literature – fitting, then, for the director who brought us three Maze Runner pictures.
Kingdom ends with the audacious promise that there’s so much more to discover, that this film’s MacGuffin was but a plot device to empower subsequent installments in a budding trilogy: to which I call a resounding and unequivocal “Phooey!” (In truth, the word I actually muttered as the credits rolled was a little more unprintable.) Imagine if Star Wars had ended with the discovery that R2-D2 carried plans to destroy the Death Star; picture a Maltese Falcon that concluded with Humphrey Bogart breaking open the bird, only to find a map to the real falcon. Such is the mindset that leads a franchise to declare, after ten movies, that the story is only just beginning. The original Apes pentalogy never knew if another film was coming, so each movie stood on its own, told its own story, and respected its own internal logic while building architecturally on what came before, not after. As for me, I have long since grown tired of franchise teases and narrative bucks being passed; I have lost patience with films that take my repeat attendance for granted. Blessed are the moviegoing meek, for they will inherit more of the same; blessed are the poor in creative spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.
Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes
 is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence/action.” Directed by Wes Ball. Written by Josh Friedman. Starring Owen Teague, Freya Allan, Kevin Durand, Peter Macon, and William H. Macy.

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