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Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (2024) By Wes Ball - Movie Review

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (2024) By Wes Ball - Movie Review

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (2024) Director: Wes Ball Writers: Josh Friedman, Rick JaffaAmanda Silver Stars: Owen Teague, Freya Allan, Kevin Durand, Peter Macon, William H. Macy, Eka Darville, Travis Jeffery, Lydia Peckham, Neil Sandilands, Runtime: 145min Rated: PG (Canada) G (Quebec) PG-13 (MPAA) for intense sequences of sci-fi violence/action.

Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on where Christianity meets culture.

Unrushed but steady storytelling

As advanced apes continue struggling to live together, an unexpected human, Mae (Freya Allan), seeks access to an item she believes can give a critical advantage against ape-kind in a bid to regain dominion over the earth.

The fourth film in the modern Planet of the Apes franchise is set many generations after the events of Matt Reeves' War for the Planet of the Apes (2017). With Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes Wes Ball director of the Maze Runner trilogy here begins a new Planet of the Apes trilogy chronicling Caesar's legacy. The previous films focused on a young chimpanzee named Caesar (Andy Serkis) who gained higher cognition and language skills as a result of experimentation intended to cure Alzheimer’s disease. During those films Caesar grew into manhood and for the apes became a kind of Biblical Moses, a law giver and leader who brought his growing band of apes to a kind of Promised Land where they could flourish outside the reach of a regressing humankind. Unlike the Biblical Moses Caesar isn’t handpicked by God for this task, his capacity to become a leader is governed by a combination of the effects of scientific experimentation on his nature and the early nurturing received from humans. Ball’s film begins with Caesar’s funeral and quickly skips forward a couple hundred years to a time where Caesar is an historic and iconic figure and both humans and apes live in a world shaped by his prior actions.

The central character is Noa (Owen Teague) a young ape prince on the cusp of manhood. He lives with his mother Dar (Sara Wiseman) and father Koro (Neil Sandilands) the leader of the Eagle Clan and the Master of Birds. This ape colony lives symbiotically with eagles which they use for hunting food. The audience is introduced to Noa as he and his friends Anaya (Travis Jeffery) and Soona (Lydia Peckham) are scaling a skyscraper reclaimed by nature to each take a wild eagle egg from a nest as part of a coming-of-age ritual where they must incubate the eggs and nurture the eaglet to adulthood creating a bond between ape and eagle.

Their peaceful existence is interrupted as hunters from a coastal ape colony carry out a raid on their colony killing some and dragging the rest off for slave labour. Noa, left for dead, sets out to find and potentially rescue his surviving Eagle Clan brothers and sisters. While on his way he meets Raka (Peter Macon) a sage hermit orangutan, who explains, “Long before your elders, it was Caesar who taught us of what it means to be Ape. He was our leader, our lawgiver: ‘Apes together, strong,’ ‘Ape shall not kill ape.’ We, the Order of Caesar, follow his words to this day. I follow. I am now... the last.” As this new chapter for ape-kind begins Raka becomes the connecting link in the chain between the legacy of Caesar and the future of that legacy in effect passing the mantle of leadership to Noa.  

They are quickly joined by Mae who surprisingly can speak—something they thought was no longer possible. At this point apes refer to humans as “echoes”—basically animals. Once they had been something more but now humans where only an echo of what they had been due to the rapid spread of Simian Flu. Dubbed the Simian Flu this genetically engineered virus produced by Gen-Sys Laboratories was meant to cure Alzheimer’s disease as it naturally spread though the population without the need for vaccinations. Mae turns out to be a human unaffected by the unintended consequences of the lingering Simian Flu which caused both the regression of humanity and the rise of the apes. Previously apes like Caesar comprised the few examples of speaking apes clustered around the Alzheimer’s research trials. Here many generations later, due to the virus, the tables are turned and almost all apes speak while there are a few examples of speaking humans. 

Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand) is the leader of the coastal ape colony sending out hunters to enslave his fellow apes. Proximus is a Latin adjective meaning "nearest" or "next," which is fitting as he presents himself as “nearest” to Caesar or the “next” Caesar. The pseudo-religious leader Proximus, as the villain of Ball’s film, is nothing like the original Caesar and is clearly twisting the memory of Caesar for his own purposes. In this way he becomes a cautionary character warning of the dangers of leaders who misappropriate religious fervor and historical personages for their personal gain. Corrupting the original Caesar’s dictum ‘Apes together, strong,’ he uses this as justification for abducting and enslaving his fellow apes in a bid to strong-arm his way into an abandoned military facility believing the contents will further ape ‘evolution’ giving him a critical advantage against any remaining humans in a bid to gain dominion over the earth. Many of Proximus’ ideas have been fed to him by his human history teacher, Trevathan (William H. Macy), a man who’s given up on the idea of humanity and chosen to live in the relative comfort of Proximus’ court. When Noa and Mae are captured by Sylva (Eka Darville), one of Proximus Caesar's hunters and chief Gorilla commander of Proximus' army, they must choose to either live under Proximus’ brutal regime or resist. Noa and Mae have different reasons for their actions yet share a common goal of resistance.

This provides the backdrop for the film’s basic questions: What kind of kingdom is best: something like the Eagle Clan ape colony or the Proximus coastal ape colony? And can apes and humans trust each other and find a way to live and work together, and what would that look like: the slave relationship between Trevathan and Proximus Caesar, or the more egalitarian relationship between Noa and Mae?

Christian viewers familiar with these recent films will remember there is a fair amount of Christian symbolism and Biblical allusions scattered throughout. The development of something like the Christian cross for apes is one notable element of symbolism which corresponds to the history of Christian image making. The Christian cross is a symbol of the crucifixion of Jesus used by Christians as a remembrance of his suffering and death for both the salvation of the world and for the individual Christian. It indicates that Jesus shed His blood and died to save humanity from sin, death, the devil, the world and to even save each person from themselves. It is a complex and lasting symbol that is not particularly mysterious. In Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes Caesar’s symbol, which looks like a star centered in a circle, is worn around the orangutan Raka’s neck as a pendant like a Christian cross and is associated with the hope of a brighter future for ape-kind living together in harmony. The symbol’s original meaning is retained in this new film even if its origins are shrouded in mystery for the films characters. Unlike Jesus whose symbol is rooted in the means of His death here Caesar’s symbol is derived from the design of his window in the house where he grew up with humans in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). Later while locked away Caesar draws the shape of that window design upon the concrete of his cell as a symbol of what he’d had lost and what he’d hope to regain. When Caesar eventually managed to pull together a small village of apes, this image is shown again as a symbol of community and life together. In Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes Proximus Caesar uses the original Caesar’s symbol, but in his hands it becomes a symbol of forced togetherness even using it as the design for backrest of his throne. The one worn around Raka’s neck passes to Noa and eventually to Mae arriving at the true meaning of the original symbol rooted in the Caesar’s close life together with humans as the young chimpanzees. This, yet again, becomes a symbol of what was lost and what was hoped for: a life of harmony between humanity and the apes. Christian viewers will recognize instances through history when symbolic images, including the Christian cross, have been used for nefarious purposes antithetical to their true meaning. In Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes this symbol of Caesar’s legacy suffers the same outcome of stigma and genuine veneration that has been suffered by the cross of Christ.

A more obvious— if somewhat loose— Biblical allusion is the name of the central character. If Caesar had been a kind of Moses, then Noa is to a lesser extent a kind of Noah. The Bible’s Noah builds an ark at God’s direction and he and his family eight souls in all are rescued in that ark as a flood wipes away the unrighteous humanity who had become wicked (Genesis 6:13-8:19). Proximus Caesar is certainly the kind of ‘mighty man’ or a ‘man of renowned’ that flaunts their infamous status in the face of others, who does as he likes without apparent reprisal who then like these tyrants and thugs of Genesis chapter six are washed away in judgment by the flood (Genesis 6:1-13). Where this analogy breaks down is that this ‘flood’ is only big enough to wash away the coastal ape colony and Noa survives the flood with more than seven additional apes. Here Noa successfully rescues much of his Eagle Clan returning them to their home to rebuild their community together in peace.

What about the quality of the film? The high quality production of these modern Planet of the Apes films shows a great degree of skill and attention to detail Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is no exception. The motion capture and computer animation used to achieve the visual heights displayed here were developed and executed by Wētā Workshop out of New Zeeland and are clearly a cut above what is regularly seen in many big budget sci-fi and fantasy films. Grounded in believable realism the precision of these effects has a way of making the sprawling vistas and incredible details of Ball’s film very immersive. Little if any of the uncanny quirkiness normally present in much of the rushed CGI produced by other Hollywood studios is present in this film. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes truly is a feast for the eyes.   

Where the film sadly falls flat is in its slow pacing and a two hour and twenty-five minute runtime. Tighter editing would certainly perk up the film’s tempo overall. When the pacing is good a long runtime won’t generally be a problem. Perhaps also finding a way to introduce Proximus Caesar earlier would help raise the stakes and improve both tension and drama in film’s the first act. For those who love these franchises and want to spend as much time as possible in the world they depict Ball’s Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes provides a leisurely tour of that world and an imaginative new entry in the continuing story. While it tackles questions of how a person’s memory is passed down through time, and the dangers that come from who promotes that legacy and history much of the film otherwise feels remarkably like past entries covering similar ideas of personal vengeance and temptations to abuse power.

Since all these modern films in this series are essentially prequels, hopefully in future installments Ball can further capitalize on what Matt Reeves established with his first three films building on this new film’s groundwork and faithfully developing the franchise further toward the point where the Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1968) began.

Rev. Ted Giese is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; an award-winning contributor to The Canadian Lutheran and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter/X @RevTedGieseCheck out our Movie Review Index!