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  • Writer's pictureDenise Breen

Kingdom of The Planet of The Apes is a clever, engaging piece of world-building that borrows heavily from the past

3.5 out of 5

Director Wes Ball's new film is inventive in its own modest but focused way. It talks about the state of the world that we inhabit although it plays out in a time zone and space far removed from ours. More than anything else, it is entertaining and gripping. I went in with low expectations but found myself engrossed and thoroughly enjoying the newly built world and the references to the original Charlton Heston era films - and that's a good thing.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, be it the film or the world that it is set in, is dominated by apes, much more so than any other film of the series. The special effects-driven action drama has only two human characters who speak only sparingly. But the simians not only employ the language of humans to communicate but they also have feelings that underscore their high emotional quotient.

Set several centuries after the events of War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), the film plays out in a period in which the primates are on an ascendancy and humans, having suffered and barely survived a deadly virus attack, have lost their power of speech and have slipped to the bottom of the pecking order.

The film is about Noa (Owen Teague), a young chimpanzee of the Eagle Clan who is thrown by circumstances into a cauldron of chaos from which he can only emerge stronger and wiser. A rampaging faction of apes who take orders from the evil Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand) burn down Noa's village and kill his father Kora (Neil Sandilands).

We first see Noa collecting eagle eggs in an initiation exercise in the company of friend Anaya and love interest Soona. But his plan does not go too well and life takes a turn that forces him to leave the world he belongs to.

Caesar (who was the focal point of the previous trilogy and was played memorably by Andy Serkis in an outstanding performance capture avatar) is long gone, but his teachings continue to guide his acolytes many generations later. But the great leader's ideologies have been twisted beyond recognition by the usurper Proximus, who runs a slave colony in an old human settlement where a bunker hides a secret that the tyrant wants to have access to.

But before we get there and find out exactly what Proximus' nefarious designs are, Noa has to survive many an endurance test in his mission to find his missing clan and take them home. He meets a wise old orangutan Raka (Peter Macon), who reminds him of what Caesar stood for - morality, compassion and strength. Does Noa have it in him to measure up to those ideals?

All three attributes come to the fore when Noa reluctantly decides to help a woman (Freya Allan), the first human we encounter in the film. Christened Nova, she, too, has an agenda but she conceals her reason for seeking Noa's help.

Captured by Proximus Caesar's general, Noa and Nova, who reveals that her name is Mae, are taken to the settlement from where the despot wreaks havoc on the apes that he has in his captivity as slaves. Noa is not only reunited with Soona and his mother, they also meet Trevathan (William H. Macy), a human who has sold his soul to the devil.

It easy to detect the parallels between the violence that Proximus unleashes and the acts of autocratic leaders of the modern world who thrive on peddling myths about a great national/cultural past and personality cults that help them cling on to power. The clash in Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is between the pursuit of peace and unity and the depredations of forces of oppression that want to take control of the world.

Even if that construct might seem a tad too obvious, if not completely laboured, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is served well by the director's ability to pack the narrative with enough action high points to offset the time that the film expends on exposition. That apart, the visually arresting film keeps rattling along at a pace that does not let the mind wander off what is unfolding on the screen. There are plenty of nods to the original Charlton Heston film: from beaches strewn with remnants from the past to the mute humans being chased and caught in nets by apes.

What definitely works in Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is that the apes (and the humans) aren't banal civilizational emblems and the situations that the screenplay creates aren't governed by the facile dynamics of a saving-the-world-from-an-imminent-threat-of-annihilation saga. Admittedly, the plot is thin and in danger of being overstretched but given the pointed themes the film addresses it never goes off the boil.

Wes Ball harnesses the inherent energies of the tale to deliver a kinetic tale that does not sacrifice the crucial elements that constitute the narrative at the altar of superficial thrills. There is, of course, plenty of tense, top-flight action sequences in the film but they are by no means bunged in just for effect.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes has its share of set pieces but they look neither set nor are they mere pieces. They are integral parts of the film's overall design. That is much more than one can say about most Hollywood blockbusters. As the first in an apparent new trilogy, this is a sound start and worth checking out.

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