Burying Caesar — Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

William J Hammon
8 min readMay 21, 2024

As I’ve gotten older, I like many before me have become increasingly set in my ways. After more than four decades on this planet, I’ve noticed my fair share of patterns and have developed tastes and biases based upon them. One of them, as frequently mentioned in this space, is an aversion to remakes and reboots at the cinema. There are exceptions to every personal rule, but on the whole, I find them cheap, cynical, and insulting, not to mention a creatively bankrupt device to bilk money out of those who don’t know any better.

But as I say, there are exceptions, and my habits have precluded me from properly appreciating some of them in their time. Among them is the Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy. I dismissed it as yet another cash grab, and felt justified in that decision every Awards Season when each film was only ever nominated for Visual Effects. However, when I started taking my annual Oscar Blitz to completist levels, I finally forced myself to watch War for the Planet of the Apes, the third movie in this series-within-a-series. I was shocked at how much I enjoyed it, because while the effects were engrossing with their very realistic motion-capture techniques (even on my fairly small television), the story was also quite impressive, as were the performances, particularly Andy Serkis as the Ape leader, Caesar. Once the 2018 campaign was concluded, I took some time to go back and watch Rise and Dawn as well, and was thoroughly entertained.

With that in mind, I resolved not to miss out on this franchise again, at least not without good reason. Once the trailers came out for Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, set hundreds of years after the last three entries, I was agog at how gorgeous it looked, and knew I wasn’t going to let it pass me by this time. And just for good measure, I watched it in IMAX to make sure I got the full experience of these masterful visuals.

So where does this newest story compare with the others? Honestly, it’s the least of the four. But that’s not a diss. I think of this in the same way I think of Toy Story 4. This is a perfectly fine movie, satisfying as can be, but there’s not the same degree of nuance and necessity that the earlier films had, and when you’re judged against such a high standard, even being “really good” might seem like a disappointment by contrast. As a standalone, however, it more than gets the job done.

Oddly, that’s part of the charm of the entire reboot series. While there is connective tissue in the plots of the first three movies, most of the crucial information is dispensed with via onscreen text and minimal exposition. So too is the case here. If you never watched any of what I’ll call “The Caesar Saga,” there are more than enough brief, efficient deliveries of information to provide all the needed context. The ability to get right into the meat of this new adventure is almost as impressive as the VFX.

Several generations after the advanced Apes gained their autonomy and humanity regressed (to the point that most people are mute and only semi-intelligent), the Earth has reclaimed much of our infrastructure, with lush jungle plant life grown over entire cities. In a small wooded area, a clan of Apes have formed a village community where they practice falconry. It’s here that we meet our protagonist, Noa (Owen Teague), the son of the village elder (Neil Sandilands), preparing for the ritual “bonding ceremony.” He and his best friends, Soona and Anaya (Lydia Peckham and Travis Jeffery, respectively) climb the highest “cliffs” of a hollowed out skyscraper to find eggs in an eagle’s nest, so that they may hatch the chicks and raise them as their own companions.

On their way home, the three adolescent chimps notice what appears to be a human, and scare it off. That night, however, the person infiltrates the village, frightening Noa and causing him to break his egg. Going off to find another, he is shocked by the arrival of another clan of Apes, this one far more militaristic and carrying electrified weapons. Having tracked the human to this point, and having spotted Noa’s horse, they proceed to the Eagle Clan village and burn it to the ground, capturing most of the citizens, killing Noa’s father, and dropping Noa himself from a great height, claiming this violence is all “For Caesar.”

Vowing revenge, Noa sets out to follow his attackers with his late father’s eagle in tow. Along the way, he encounters the human scavenger at long last. She is called Mae (Freya Allan), and is among the few humans who hasn’t lost her intellect or speech abilities in the centuries since the man-made virus wreaked havoc on her species. She joins Noa along with an orangutan named Raka (Peter Macon from The Orville), the last of an order of acolytes who believe Caesar meant for Apes and Humans to coexist peacefully. Noa eventually makes it to a coastal military base, where his clan has been enslaved under the yoke of the self-appointed successor to Caesar, Proximus (Kevin Durand), who wants to use Mae — along with his own toadyish human servant Trevathan (William H. Macy, slumming it a bit) — to open up a huge vault that he believes will hold the key to true Ape ascendancy as the dominant species.

Especially compared to the previous three installments, this story is very basic. It’s the “hero’s journey” template to a T. You can set your watch by the familiar tropes and plot beats. The loss of a parent, the death of a mentor, an unremarkable lead thrust into circumstances beyond his comprehension to discover his own greatness, eagles as a deus ex machina, etc. We’re only missing a volcano and some jewelry to make this a Lord of the Rings parody with monkeys. There are some areas where this is downright frustrating, as the world-building was begging to be expanded upon. For instance, we don’t spend all that much time with Proximus, so we have no idea what his goal is beyond the nebulous pursuit of power. We don’t know how he’s able to cultivate a following, especially one where he relies on abuse and slave labor to achieve his ends. This is particularly noticeable during the climactic battle, when all numbers are squarely against him, and yet the end result still takes several minutes.

But on the whole it can be forgiven because within that simplicity also lie the grace notes of the tale. The main metaphor for the entire Apes franchise — old and new — is that man is doomed to destroy himself due to his violent tendencies and avaricious pursuits, proving that we are no less animalistic than those who walk on all fours. We refuse to evolve, so eventually another species does and takes over, hoping to correct our mistakes.

This film takes these ideas a step further by setting the proceedings so far after Caesar’s story but quite a long time before the age of the Charlton Heston classic. Two key themes emerge by having this take place literally in the middle ground of the timeline. The first is essentially a test of the Apes’ own progress, seeing if they will fall victim to one of our own foibles, that of perverting truth and knowledge for personal gain. Both Raka and Proximus profess to speak of Caesar’s true intent. One believes in peace and harmony, the other conquest. Neither is entirely wrong, nor is either one correct. That’s just the side effect of the passage of time, especially when history is delivered through oral lore (only Mae and Trevathan can read, and Caesar left no text behind anyway). What matters is how the interpretation of his teachings is applied. For Raka, it’s in the pursuit of understanding and compromise. For Proximus, it’s to impose his own will. Both have value to Noa, but clearly one is the more “evolved” idea, one that would lead the Apes to a more prosperous existence.

This extends to the second intriguing idea, and that’s whether Apes and Humans should even try to coexist. Mae herself isn’t all that interesting of a character, but what she represents is. While the Apes cannot read, Noa does know that Humans wrote books, and that their “symbols have meaning.” So when he, Soona, and Anaya see a children’s book where primates are caged in a zoo, it raises important doubts as to Mae’s motivations, which she poignantly reinforces by asserting that those images weren’t meant for Apes to see, and that this world wasn’t meant for them to rule. Even when she and Noa can be allies of convenience, there are still social and survival instincts creating an implicit bias that can overrule logic. This is demonstrated beautifully in a pair of scenes where Noa and Mae separately look through a telescope at an abandoned observatory (before Mae reveals she can talk). We never see what they’re looking at through the eyepiece, but the fact that it leaves an impression on each of them at all speaks to the similarities of the respective sides better than a thousand tired “We’re not so different” cliché lines ever could. Both species are at a crossroads, and their paths are uncertain. Can one progress without the other regressing, or are all involved doomed to conflict until one alpha race claims full superiority? These are much headier questions than the very boiler plate narrative would have you believe.

And of course, the impact of all this is reinforced by the absolutely stunning effects. With each passing entry, the mo-cap gets better and better, to the point where you really have to convince yourself at times that you’re not watching an actual talking chimp interacting with a woman. There are a few scenes where the visuals aren’t as good, particularly late scenes where Noa and company get wet — soaking fur just doesn’t render properly yet — but the vast majority of the shots feel like you could reach out and touch them. That is no small feat, especially since Wētā FX has been on something of a downturn in the quality of their work over the last few years. Here, though, they’ve come ever so much closer to perfection. The action scenes are obviously the ones that’ll get the most attention, but for me, the highlight is an early interaction between Noa and his mother (Sara Wiseman) where they share a few words, a brief embrace, and an exchange of looks where you can almost see life in their eyes.

Like I said, this is decidedly fourth of the four films in the reboot series, but that doesn’t mean it’s not really, really good. It has its flaws, particularly in the storytelling department and the performances of the human characters. But what it lacks in sophistication it more than makes up in a feast for the eyes and a sneakily clever examination of just how our destructive instincts manifest themselves. I’m glad that I finally took the time to engage with this series properly, and whether you’re a die-hard fan or not, I think you will be, too.

Grade: B+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How many movies in this series have you seen? Am I the only one who saw Proximus’ rally and secretly hoped he’d scream, “CAN YOU DIG IT?!” Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content, and check out the entire BTRP Media Network at btrpmedia.com!

Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on May 21, 2024.

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William J Hammon

All content is from the blog, “I Actually Paid to See This,” available at actuallypaid.com