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Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

Full disclosure, I’m a huge Apes fan. It’s a series that’s fascinated and influenced me since I saw the first movie on TV as a kid. I was obsessed with the original movies (even sitting through the entirety of the subsequent TV series – both live action and animated versions).

There’s so much about the original Apes films that remains worthy of praise (the makeup, the twist at the end of the original, and so on), but for me, one of the aspects I enjoyed most was the way the five movies in the original series serve as a single cyclical story. Okay, so there are some issues here, not least the over-reliance on time travel and the batshit crazy Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Ultimately, though, the five films follow a generally logical progression, and that’s no mean feat given the way they were produced. The incredible success of the first film took people by surprise. The five film story arc was most definitely not planned in advance.

I’ll skip over Tim Burton’s abominable 2001 remake of the original (though I’m a glutton for punishment and I do want to go back and watch it again out of curiosity) and go straight onto the newer films.

I was dubious when the series was relaunched in 2011, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes, despite its clunky title, proved to be a revelation, with an alternative version of the apes ‘creation’ story that was eminently more plausible than the original ‘three talking apes escape a nuclear explosion in a space ship and fall back through time’ explanation posited by 1973’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Unlike the Burton version, this new beginning improved the series overall, didn’t diminish it in the slightest. Extraordinarily good CGI replaced prosthetics, giving the film an undoubted advantage over all the Apes movies that preceded it. This time, rather than human-shaped actors in masks doing chimp-like movements, we had apes that looked like apes, not weird human-ape hybrids.

Of course, special effects don’t make a movie alone, and the two sequels that followed actually improved on Rise. Without the baggage that inevitably saddles origin movies, they were able to branch out with bigger stories and a more engaging perspective. Like the original films, though, it’s an ape that provides the continuity. Helped by excellent performances, ever more realistic CGI, and top-notch direction from the superb Matt Reeves. Caesar’s story came to an end with 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes.

And that, I think, is where the franchise should have ended. But, like all good cash cows, the studio execs sensed there was more money to be made. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, the first film in a proposed new trilogy, is currently in cinemas, and like the fan boy I am, I couldn’t resist seeing it on opening night.

Many years after the reign of Caesar, a young ape goes on a journey that will lead him to question everything he’s been taught about the past and make choices that will define a future for apes and humans alike.

Read more: Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

I enjoyed Kingdom a lot, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s an utterly pointless film. It’s designed to keep the Apes franchise alive and keep suckers like me shelling out cash to keep watching. I say that because in terms of the series overall, it adds nothing. In fact, I’d argue that it actually detracts from the validity of the earlier films just by virtue of existing. That sounds harsh, and I feel bad writing such a negative statement because there’s a lot to recommend here. It’s a beautiful-looking film, and the CGI is, at times, utterly breathtaking. We’ve reached the point, I think, where photo-realistic actually means photo-realistic, because it’s hard to believe you’re watching computer animation and not genuine footage.

There’s a new team behind the cameras, and they do a good job. I get that these films are going to continue to be made, and with a whole world Ape-dominated world to play in, there’s no reason why the story can’t go on and on and on. My problem, though, is that this movie is missing some of the key elements that made the previous films (particularly the last two) essential viewing.

As a genre writer, I often struggle with the worlds I create. My problem is I want to make them plausible when they’re inherently not, and the downside of that is I’m always looking for explanations. The prime example of this I usually cite is zombies eating flesh (it’s why, in Autumn, my zombies don’t). I can’t see any reason why they would do it. I can’t understand their motive. And that’s frigging ridiculous, because all stories about reanimated dead folks are based on illogical nonsense.

I lose all investment when I’m reading a story or watching a film where a gap in the logic rears up and takes me out of the moment. It feels lazy. It feels like solutions are being crowbarred in to further a story. If the folks telling the story can’t be bothered, why should I?

Here are two examples from Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes that illustrate this gripe. First, despite the generations we’re told have passed since the last film, the talking humans we meet have clean teeth, they speak contemporary English, and they’re reasonably well-dressed. Given how the Apes have progressed as the dominant species in this story, should there not have been an equal and opposite regression in the humans?

A scene from Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

Second – and there’s a slight spoiler here – when our human hero activates a radio (which she knows how to find and work with the kind of expertise that would inevitably have died out long before she was born) – an operator uses it to make a call which is answered immediately by someone else presumably hiding underground somewhere many miles away. Then others respond. Excuse me, but exactly how long have these other people been sitting waiting next to their radios on the off chance someone would call? It must have been decades…

But do you see what I’m saying? It’s contrived. It’s lazy. For me, it undoes all the good work that the filmmakers had done in building up this beautiful Ape-ruled world.

And apologies if I’m ranting now, but this is more important than you might think, because it runs counter to the reason I loved the original films so much. I spoke about this at the beginning of this piece – although not designed as such, the five original Apes films formed a (reasonably) logical and contained story arc. It felt organic, not forced for the most part. The three films that followed expanded on the good work the earlier filmmakers had done. Kingdom, though, for all its positives, is the exact opposite. It’s little more than a set-up. It’s a tease. It feels more like a pitch for the rest of the new series than a self-contained story in its own right, and that’s disappointing.

But hey, it’s Planet of the Apes, and despite the fact that this stuff gets me disproportionately angry, I’m still recommending you go and see it.

Thanks for reading.

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