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‘Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes’ review: Hail, Caesar

“Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” picks up exactly where the trilogy released between 2011 and 2017 left off. (20th Century Studios)

By Alissa Wilkinson

For a series with a goofy premise — what if talking apes overthrew humanity — the “Planet of the Apes” universe is uncommonly thoughtful, even insightful. If science fiction situates us in a universe that’s just different enough to slip daring questions past our mental barriers, then the “Apes” movies are among the best examples. That very premise, launched with talking actors in ape costumes in the 1968 film, has given storytellers a lot to chew on, contemplating racism, authoritarianism, police brutality and, in later installments, the upending of human society by a brutal, fast-moving virus. (Oops.)

Those later virus-ridden installments, a trilogy released between 2011 and 2017, are among the series’ best, and well worth revisiting. The newest film, “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” picks up exactly where that trilogy left off: with the death of Caesar, the ultrasmart chimpanzee who has led the apes away from what’s left of humanity and into a paradise. (The scene was a direct quotation of the story of Moses leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, but dying before he could set foot there.) The apes honor his memory and vow to keep his teachings, especially the first dictum — “ape not kill ape.” Caesar preached a gospel of peacefulness, loyalty, generosity, nonaggression and care for the Earth; unlike the humans, they intend to live in harmony.

The teachings of peaceful prophets, however, tend to be twisted by power-seekers, and apparently this isn’t just a human problem. “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” directed by Wes Ball from a screenplay by Josh Friedman, leaps forward almost immediately by “many generations” (years matter less in this post-human world), and the inevitable has happened. The apes have fractured into tribes, while Caesar has passed from historical figure to mythic one, a figure venerated by some and forgotten by most.

That there even was a Caesar is unknown to Noa (Owen Teague), a young chimpanzee whose father, Koro (Neil Sandilands) is leader of his clan and an avid breeder of birds. That clan has its own laws, mostly having to do with how to treat birds’ nests, and that’s all that Noa and his friends Anaya (Travis Jeffery) and Soona (Lydia Peckham) have known.

But then one day tragedy strikes, in the form of an attack on the clan by the soldiers of Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), the leader of a clan of coastal apes. Noa finds himself alone, searching for his clan, who have been carted away. On his journey Noa meets a human (Freya Allen) who, like the other humans, doesn’t speak.

At this point in the evolution of the virus, mutations have rendered any surviving humanity speechless and dull-witted, living in roving bands and running from predators; to the apes it’s as preposterous to imagine a talking human as a talking ape is to us. But he also meets Raka (Peter Macon), who believes himself to be the last of the faithful followers of Caesar’s peaceful teachings, even wearing Caesar’s diamond-shaped symbol around his neck. (Eagle-eyed viewers will recall that the symbol echoes the shape of the window in the room in which Caesar was raised as a baby.) Noa learns from Raka. And when he finds what he’s looking for, he realizes he has an important job to do.

“Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” is not quite as transporting as the previous trilogy, perhaps because the apes now act so much like humans that the fruitful dissonance in our minds has mostly been mitigated. It’s simpler to imagine the apes as just stand-in humans when they’re all talking, and thus easier to just imagine you’re watching, say, “The Lion King” or something.

But there’s still a tremendous amount to mull over here, like Proximus Caesar, who borrows the idea of Caesar to prop up his own version of leadership. The real Caesar was undoubtedly strong and brave, but Proximus Caesar has mutated this into swagger and shows of force, an aggression designed to keep his apes in line. He is not brutal, exactly; He is simply insistently powerful and more than a bit of a fascist. Every morning, he greets his subjects by proclaiming that it is a “wonderful day,” and that he is Caesar’s rightful heir, and that they must all work together as one to build their civilization ever stronger.

Visual cues indicate that Proximus Caesar’s kingdom is modeled partly on the Roman Empire, with its colonizing influence and its intention to sweep the riches of the ancient human world — its history, its labor, its technology — into its own coffers. By telling his version of Caesar’s legacy, Proximus Caesar makes the apes believe they are part of some mighty, unstoppable force of history.

But of course, history has a habit of repeating itself, whether it’s ancient Rome or Egypt, and in Proximus Caesar’s proclamations one detects a bit of Ozymandias: Look on his works, ye mighty, and despair! “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” is set in the future, but like a lot of science fiction — “Dune,” for instance, or “Battlestar Galactica,” or Walter Miller’s “A Canticle for Leibowitz” — there’s a knowing sense that all this has happened before, and all this will happen again.

That’s what makes “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” powerful, in the end. It probes how the act of co-opting idealisms and converting them to dogmas has occurred many times over. What’s more, it points directly at the immense danger of romanticizing the past, imagining that if we could only reclaim and reframe and resurrect history, our present problems would be solved. Golden ages were rarely actually golden, but history is littered with leaders who tried to make people believe they were anyhow. It’s a great way to make people do their bidding.

There are some hints near the end of “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” of what might be next for the franchise, should it be fated to continue. But the uneasy fun of the series is we already know what happens, eventually; it was right there in the first movie, and the warning it poses remains bleak.

At the start of the 1968 film, the star Charlton Heston explains, “I can’t help thinking somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man.” You might have expected, from a movie like this, that “better” species would be these apes. But it turns out we might have to keep looking.

‘Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes’: Rated PG-13, for scenes of peril and woe and a couple of funny, mild swear words. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes. In theaters.

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