Saturday, June 8, 2024

Chimpan-A to Chimpan-Z: Are you familiar with the concept of evolution?


KINGDOM OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

2024
Directed by Wes Ball
Written by Josh Friedman

Spoilers: moderate (verging on high, maybe?)


It's in the nature of a pleasant surprise that Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, the tenth film in the overarching franchise and the fourth in the rebooted continuity that began with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, is as good as it isit's less of a surprise given that basically everybody I know who's seen it has told me it was good, but we're talking first principles here.  I'll readily admit to having prejudged it for a number of reasons, some better, some worse: it was a third sequel for Rise, made at least somewhat transparently just to reheat the IP for its new owners at Disney; back in 2017, the second sequel to Rise, War For the Planet of the Apes, already finished the story of Caesar, obviating any outwardly-compelling need to visit his post-human milieu again; having seen those two sequels, I was less convinced than many that there'd ever been that compelling a need to "finish" the story of Caesar in the first place, since I still hold that it climaxed already, back at the end of Rise; in taking the series past a point where humans could be anything more than vestigial, my suspicion was that it would necessarily follow in its non-continuity predecessors' footsteps, and cease having much of a point, with a cast of apes now indistinguishable in all respects but visually from people, in a world indistinguishable from any old generic post-apocalyptic fantasy; and, last but not least, it represented the Caesar-centric sequels' caretaker, director Matt Reeves, handing the series off to another filmmaker, Wes Ball, whose resume is basically just The Maze Runner trilogy, an adaptation of a young adult novel series that I've never seen, but bears only the unappetizing reputation of "not the worst of them."

So, clearly, some of those prejudices were just unfair.  As it turned out, at least three of those things turn out to be boons: for one, it's actually not devoid of fascination to explore this world through somebody who isn't Caesar, and who, when we meet him, hasn't even heard of Caesar; nevertheless, his movie will continue the story of Caesar in, perhaps, a more interesting way than the sequels that did have Caesar continued them, since now instead of treating with a detailed chronicle of Caesar's intermittent existential struggle with humanity, we're looking at what the legacy of his achievement actually turned out to be, which is a pretty mixed bag.  Meanwhile, though it actively courts the danger of being "another Planet of the Apes adventure," that's not really that different from its two immediate predecessors, nor is it necessarily an evil.  Furthermore, now it can actually commit substantial energies to being another Planet of the Apes adventure.


It's related to how content I am to use the term "an adventure" to describe an Apes movie, but Ball is probably a straight-up improvement upon Reeves.  Reeves is a filmmaker I've increasingly cooled on as the years have gone by, a talented director with abundantly-clear technical skill, but one whose repertoire seems to be limited to po-faced and depressive exercises in being as serious as humanly possible about talking monkeys or men who dress like bats.  As for Ball, even all that time spent on YA adaptations was almost undoubtedly to the strength of the Apes film he's made, which has a YA kind of vibe in many respects itselfit is, after all, a coming of age tale for our new chimpanzee hero.  That YA sensation is salient in several of the concepts and much of the presentation here (for instance, I would not be too surprised if there's a whole five-novel series about a teen from a tribe of post-apocalyptic falconers, whose owners' are presently finalizing the lawsuit), but, to its absolute credit, it never bogs down in the "incredibly stupid metaphorical dystopian world-building" that seems to be the hallmark of so much young adult science fiction.

This isn't to say it raises no questions: the big one is how we got here, with apes descended from Caesar's revolution having lost so much of their inheritance that even the pedantic orangutan is illiterate, and accordingly lugs around his collection of human books (apparently believing they're ape books!) only as a self-imposed religious obligation.  It also lacks all clarity about how and why some groups have cleaved into species-segregated enclaves, while others didn't, to the extent that when our insular chimp hero meets the pedantic orangutan, I was somewhat startled he knew what an orangutan was.  The technology is a little all over the place, too: I can only assume our hero's steel knife was scavenged, not manufactured, but that already leads us back to "how could you possibly lack this much historical awareness?", since when you think about it, there are easily five billion steel knives in the United States right now, many in their original packaging, and if you think about packaging, you'll wonder how the apes could possibly not know, simply through the omnipresence of the visual culture of the world that's rotted around them, the basic fact of humanity's prior dominance.


But I'm nitpicking, which amuses me, but may not amuse you, so let's proceed.  Asking whether this dystopia is stupid ignores the far more important question of whether it's even a dystopia at all, and that's where the biggest difference in Ball's approach (regardless of whatever his approach was on his dystopic YA movies) lies from that of his predecessor, even though Reeves was pursuing broadly-similar material.  Despite the neo-Apes film's well-attested self-serious sincerity, which is a good thing and not abandoned in these new circumstances, there's a novel brightness here that I enjoy a great deal.

By that, I mean a brightness of tone; but I mean it's literally brighter, too, with all the grim gorillas in the mists and sepulchral wintriness of Reeves's films superseded by a welcoming sunniness in Gyula Pados's photography (and the night photography is welcomingly classical for a 2020s film!), and Pados, also formerly of the Maze Runners, has some rather nice and subtle ideas about emotionally differentiating the various phases of his filmwe start with some outright halcyon imagery rendered in glittering magic hour golds, while the trek is sun-dappled but not without a sense of lurking danger, and at last there's a certain stark noontide bleakness to where we finally end upbut those ideas are subtle, within an overriding idea of pretty naturalism, and it does a lot to lighten the mood.  It's an Apes movie that, for the first time in a while, isn't beating you over the head with its notions of an ended world.  This is fitting, because in some respects it is offering, instead, a world that's only beginning.


Needless to say, we're getting ahead of ourselves.  So: about three hundred years after Caesar, we arrive somewhere in North America that used to be the outskirts of a major enough city to have piles of steel and concrete that used to be skyscrapers, and in this "suburb" of this vine-covered urban jungle, there exists a small, vaguely-Neolithic chimpanzee tribe whose culture revolves to a striking degree around eagle falconry and the puberty rituals associated with raiding eagle aeries for their eggs.  It is on such an excursion that we find Noa (Owen Teague) and his friends, Soona (Lydia Peckham) and Anaya (Travis Jeffrey), and learn that Noa is, if not by ape standards then certainly by ours, a bit of a square, deeply invested in his elders' Law, but, more importantly, attuned to the sense of morality and equity underlying it, perhaps as a result of his pedigree, since his father (Neil Sandilands) is the eagle tribe's leader and is evidently harder on poor Noa than any of his other subjects.  Things are going well for Noa, until a chance encounter with a parasitic human scavenger (Freya Allan) ruins his egg, and sends him on an urgent quest to get another in the towers of the ex-human city.

The movie's not about getting an egg: it serves only to make it so that Noa isn't caught as unawares as all his fellows when the forces of "Caesar"Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), though how close he is to Caesar's beliefs is a matter of opinioncome to Noa's village, killing his father, almost killing him, and stealing his friends and family off into slavery.  He vows to rescue them, and his journey begins, bringing him across an orangutan sage, Raka (Peter Macon), and into the acquaintance of the scavenging mute human he met before, dubbed, for the sake of tradition, Nova.  Their destination is what you might call a kingdom of apes, ruled over by Proximus in a distortion (or, Kingdom proffers through its villain, an evolution) of Caesar's legacy.  Having unitedin many cases forciblythousands of apes in order to achieve the Babel-like task at hand, Proximus's object is to breach a survival bunker built by humans in the time before time, full of Caesar-knows-what treasures, undoubtedly weapons and technology beyond the wildest dreams of fallen apekind.*  Of course, Noa has other plansbut so does Nova, too.

I guess that last bit is "a spoiler," though not much of one, since "Nova's" (her name is Mae) modesty-preserving covering, unlike the standard covering of Apes movie humans (who have lost every single technology, including language, except leatherwork) is a pair of pants.  And that honestly aggravates meit is genuinely impossible to tell if the movie's playing an avowed joke on its audience with those pantsbut either way, it was always inevitable that, at some point, the movie's second-billed actor was going to prove to have more plot function than a mute animal was likely to have, and Josh Friedman's screenplay simply takes the most direct route to it.  That's arguably this screenplay's strength: it's got some twists but not even that many of them, and is a rather straightforward thing, leaning (like its two predecessors) to a somewhat hazardous degree on a visual component that it hopes hasn't lessened in its novelty over the past seven years.

That gamble's successful: Kingdom looks splendid, and besides the cinematography already discussed, it's still very much worth being impressed by the ape CGI, and though the technological improvements at this point are perhaps more iterative, it's probably by default the best ape CGI the series has done.  (It is not worth being impressed by the bird CGI, and it occurred to me watching this that VFX studios have not even remotely cracked photorealistic birds yetKingdom is just the latest offenderwith texturing and lighting on feathers that makes them look more like guardians of Ga'hoole than living birds, along with some very specific troubles with compositing, which I assume have to do with a small margin-of-error for when wings against a sky look "wrong."  This means a lot of shots with fully-convincing CGI apes interacting with by-and-large fake-looking CGI eagles.)  Well, as far as what it's doing with that technology, there is, I think, a noticeable effort to push even further towards zoological accuracy, including with Noa, and even if they're going to humanize him the most, the chimp-like prognathicism is a lot more pronounced; Soona and Anaya, however, are probably the most "actual chimpanzee" chimpanzees in this whole franchise, at least that are still supposed to be full figures of audience empathy and not kind of ugly, and even Proximus gets something like that, though he's our villain.  (And he's also an improbably-large bonobogorillas got it in the original pentology, but that's sensible, at least, it's what pop culture would naturally do with big mean gorillas.  The post-Rise films of this franchise, however, must be uniquely invested in evil bonobos.)  The atavistic acting is still top-notch, too**, and I noticed, with a smile, that Andy Serkis is credited as a "special adviser."  (Though Teague credits a chimp named Bentley as his truest mentor.)

Ball, for his part, has at least as good an eye for iconography as Reeves, despite his generally lighter touch, with a patient and reverent appreciation of the defamiliarized landscape (this is the longest Apes movie ever, but it doesn't even feel like it), and that's on top of some really solid action, too.  "Chimps climbing a crumbling skyscraper" is a pretty thrilling experience, and that's just where we start.  There's an outright tremendous beat during the climax, involving a wall of water and a distorted figure behind it, basically lifted intact from a Jurassic Park movie, yet I find it weirdly satisfying that someone's given a cousin of Kong the exact same dread-inducing treatment as his hated t-rex adversaries.  (Going back to the CGI, that's another iterative improvement: this movie does "wet fur" and interactions with water crazily well.)  But anyway, there's an even more tremendous beat, during the climax of the climax, where, suddenly, it doesn't matter all that much that the bird CGI isn't great.


And, yes, the biggest pleasures of Kingdom are that it's a nicely-traditional hero's journey with chimps (a nicely-traditional hero's journey with humans wouldn't be anything to spit at in 2024), but it still has the flintiness that makes it a real Apes movie, picking up a theme of cycles of history that's largely lain dormant since the the original PotA all those years ago, while the franchised pursued more immediate goals.  Presently, even amongst all the sunlight, Kingdom darkly ponders whether the optimism that its storytelling form can't help but embody could possibly be justified, ultimately winding its way into a denouement that leaves the future of the future very pointedly unsettled.  My instincts are that Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, Rise's screenwriters, had more of a hand in this than "uncredited story development" would strictly indicate; not to be a dick to Friedman, but I would therefore suppose that dealing with ape religion and ape history was their contribution.  There's more of substance here than any Apes movie since Rise, anyway, even if its attitude is never as sullen and glowering as those in the interval.

In the meantime, though, we do have that hero's journey, and a solid hero's journey it is, with a very solid hero at the center of it, Teague giving the franchise one of its best performances in the process (really only short of Serkis and Roddy McDowall, ape-wise, and only McDowall in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, specifically, if we want to parse it out that finely).  He's rather carefully charting Noa's path towards moral maturityoften a painful path, for there's a persistent sense of his dismay that his world doesn't work the way he was taught it doesand that, of course, is on top of all the technique inherent to "sapient chimpanzee, who's onscreen virtually the entire runtime of a two and a half hour film."  He's charismatic, but in a different way than any previous ape protagonist, particularly Caesar's (either Caesar's) not-entirely-humorless but often-brooding revolutionary; as unfortunately simplistic as it is to say, Teague's Noa's just plain likeable, still a little broody, but with a subdued streak of irony, and an open-hearted way of looking at things even when he doesn't understand them, and that likeability is carried through across the whole ape cast, just a very appealing bunch, from Peckham and Lewis's "teenaged" friends to Macon's agreeable portrait of a wise orangutan, simultaneously an often-wrong know-it-all who, nevertheless, seems to know he doesn't know all that much.  Allan's a bit of an outlier here, not really tacking towards "likeability," and once she gives up her first act ruse, she's all but consumed by her own mission at a tangent to Noa's; so while I wouldn't call it a bad performance, as such, it's by some margin the least-embroidered here, and hence the least-interesting.  (Such is the tragedy of being a human in an Apes movie, it seems; without even leaving this particular Apes movie, William H. Macy shows up, only to get a point across.)  But personality isn't lacking anywhere else in the cast or the story or the filmmaking, from the basics of the world-building"hey, check this out, a society built on falconry" is not remotely some automatic extension of "ape behavior," and, however low-key, it's very much the kind of disorienting weirdness the franchise asks forto the chumminess, even the frightening rationality, of its villain.  Though the villain gets the most of his personality out of living at a literally-skewed angle on the rusted hulk of a cargo ship.

It's not the fiercest or the most profound entry in its franchise, but it's a more worthwhile expansion of it than I would've dreamed.  If it does get a direct sequel of its ownand 2024's box office takes, including for Kingdom, are at the level that I wouldn't bet my life that in three years there'll still be theaters in which to show such a sequelI'll probably have all the same reservations, and still be a giant stick-in-the-mud about it.  But even if this Apes is just a yarn, it's a yarn that justifies itself in the telling; and if all of Rise's sequels are basically just remakes of Battle of the Planet of the Apes, this is the one that most completely redeems that film's failed attempt to merge a newfound sense of hope and the Apes movies' customary pessimism.  Plus, that adventurous mood just feels distinctive in this series; and so I could easily see this one growing on me, in ways that none of its franchise-mates could.

Score: 8/10

*It wouldn't fit the neo-Apes' grounding in reasonably-hard science fiction, but there's a small, shameful part of me that is slightly disappointed the bunker isn't full of psychic mutants.
**Though there's a breathiness to the chimps' line reads that I may misremember as not being so pronounced by War.  I got used to it.

3 comments:

  1. As one of those who recommended this film (Let’s pray to God that history proves you pessimistic, rather than prophetic when it comes to the Fate of cinemas, we need more opportunities to get out of the House) I’m glad you enjoyed it - and enjoyed it quite a bit to boot!

    I have to say that one of the most interesting things about this film is the almost complete lack of malice from Proximus Caesar when we meet him in person - it’s almost as if he’s decided that, having already unleashed cruelties enough to cast a very long shadow, he’s determined to spend his screen time putting the other half of Machiavelli’s dictate about Fear v. Love into practice (His onscreen actions are tyrannical throughout, but arguably less cold-bloodedly villainous than Mae repeatedly pursuing her mission at the cost of serious collateral damage).

    Honestly, this curiously-chummy dynamic helps keep Hero’s Journey of this film fresh (Especially with Mae’s own journey having the strong hint of a ‘Start of Darkness’), rather than making it a retread of ground over which so many others have tramped.

    Also, it should be said that Raka is my new Favourite: as someone who has worked in a library, one can imagine my appreciation for the simian equivalent of a mendicant friar who struggles to preserve knowledge when he may or may not even be able to read the books in which it is held (Truly, he deserves the librarian’s ultimate accolade and I therefore quote the poet: “Ook.”)

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    1. I mean, he can't read the books, right? If he could, he'd have to notice all the references to "man" and "woman" and "human" and their variants all over almost any but a niche descriptive or instructional text. Like the performance and character a lot, though. Proximus likewise, as you say. (-mild SPOILER- I do wish Macy's demivillain wasn't so braindead he turned his back on people who basically just told him they were going to kill him! I like his underutilized character too, and that beat, but could've gotten more out of him and staged it a little better-end SPOILER)

      Re: movie theaters, I do hope I'm being hyperbolic, if for no other reason than streaming revenue doesn't seem to be able to support even a reasonable fraction of modern movie budgets. But even as unhealthy as this already was in 2022 and 2023, it kind of looks like there's not gonna be a Maverick or Barbenheimer this summer (Inside Out 2? we'll see, though "family cartoon" arguably doesn't cut it anyway), nor much I can think of offhand for the late autumn season.

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    2. Oh, I did forget about Deadpool & Wolverine, but I feel like that is very much a "who can say?", especially as it seems to be leaning into multiverse stuff and that I'm not sure that hasn't already outrun people's appetite for it.

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