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  • Writer's pictureSam Malone

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes: What Would Caesar Do?

Constant discovery is the eternal joy of the ahistorical - Tom McGuane

I’m skeptical of the term “history buff.” I’m skeptical, really, of anyone who refuses to take even a partial interest in history. It’s ridiculous to be inconsiderate of the past. You don’t have to be an expert or devouring texts about the Roman Empire or the Third Reich. A slight perk of intrigue, a curiosity for everything and everyone that’s come before us is all that’s necessary. To think and try to understand how the events of history have both oxygenated and polluted the world, and the society, we breathe today.

An early summer blockbuster, somewhat surprisingly, works thoughtfully with this idea. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, with Wes Ball now in the director’s chair, continues the best franchise of this century with a fourth entry that is both wonderfully cerebral and emotional. In other words, it fits right along with the gritty intensity of Matt Reeves’ (he’s taken his talents to Gotham City) previous two films, the poignant and tragic Dawn (2014) and the relentlessly bleak but beautiful War (2017). Even Caeser’s origin story in Rupert Wyatt’s Rise (2011) was a more than solid start to the reboot series and proof that these stunning computer-generated Apes were not only going to be smarter, but more fun to watch and much better looking than the superhero drivel that dominated the 2010s. 

With Kingdom, Ball has added on a more colorful, verdant adventure in a smaller scale while maintaining the accompaniment of smarts with spectacle and, while not exactly reinventing it, effectively evolving the series into a new generation with new characters to deeply care for and a story to follow post-Caesar. The beloved Caesar (played by the great Andy Serkis), one of my favorite characters in film history. I was sad to no longer see him in these films, but his presence is felt, seemingly reincarnated, in our new hero, Noa (another phenomenal motion-capture performance by Owen Teague). Noa is the son of the elder of the Eagle Clan; they live closed-off from “the valley beyond” where humans, void of their past intellectual abilities thanks to the virus (the Simian Flu that humans caused yet used as one justification for going to war with the apes) that killed off the majority of their species, live and hide in the woods. Noa and his friends, Soona (Lydia Peckham) and Anaya (Travis Jeffrey), call them “echoes.” The apes are quite in tune with nature and animals, especially, you guessed it, eagles. The young ones are taught to climb to an eagle nest, usually found in the abandoned skyscrapers, and take an egg so that they can eventually bond with the eagle (they must leave at least one egg to make sure the species also lives on). Soon Noa’s clan is attacked by a horde of vicious apes, wearing masks and using electric cattle prods in the name of Caesar. They burn down their village and kidnap most of the clan, including Noa’s mother. Noa gets knocked out and wakes up the next morning, vowing to return them home.

I’ll leave out the details of Noa’s journey, but it leads him first to another wise orangutan. If Maurice from the first three movies was your favorite character, then you’ll be just as pleased with Raka (Peter Macon). Raka has books (“the symbols have meaning”) and studies the intelligent, civilized humans of the past as well as the legend of Caesar. He’s frustrated that the mask-wearing apes have learned the wrong message and twisted Caesar’s words. One scene where he modifies Caesar’s famous mantra, “apes together strong” to “together, strong” in counseling Noa and Mae makes for the most emotional moment of the movie. He and Noa meet Mae (Freya Allan), a smart human capable of speech. She at first pretends she can’t speak until she has to call Noa to save her life when they run into the evil gang of apes again. Before they find out she can talk and talk well, Raka calls her “Nova,” a callback to Linda Harrison’s character in the original 1968 Planet of the Apes and it is also the name of the little human girl that Maurice adopts in the last film, War for the Planet of the Apes

Eventually, Mae and Noa, developing a relationship built on a back-and-forth of trust and suspicion are captured and taken to a labor camp where the Eagle Clan is forced to live and a tyrannical ape who calls himself Proximus Caesar rules over a kingdom of ape clans. He’s forced them to work on opening a giant vault where humans, specifically the “important” ones of our lovely species - government and military - once resided in the aftermath of their apocalypse. It’s full of weapons and materials that Proximus believes will help him not only rule the apes, but keep humans in their current place on the margins.

If Proximus wasn’t such a typical despotic dunce, it wouldn’t be too hard to agree with his view on humans. The world was theirs, they had their time and they doomed themselves. But Noa, who has learned from Raka the true beliefs of Caesar, the great ape (though the film is also ingeniously wary of making Caesar a Christlike figure) that led with “morality, strength, and compassion” for both humans and apes, knows better. The question of can apes and humans live in harmony together is still not only asked centuries later, but still pleading to be experimented. This is made all the more tragic knowing the events of Dawn and how Caesar and one good man (Jason Clarke’s character in that film) came close to making this possible before Caesar realized that apes could be just as stupid and hateful as humans. Therefore, Caesar’s saying, “apes together strong” took on a whole new meaning in ape posterity. He never meant for one to dominate the other, it was a rallying cry in the beginning to escape captivity and zoo cages, but what Caesar really desired - raised by humans (strange to think James Franco kicked this whole thing off) and knowing they can be good too - was peace for all. Now Proximus, taking Caesar’s name, using his symbol (the window panes shape of Caesar’s old attic bedroom window), and wrongfully using his teachings, plans to end those pesky bipeds once and for all. 

What makes Kingdom so good is the fact that this question is still being asked and its theme is far from dulled. The film has given the question a fresh new life and story, reinvigorating it with how true and realistic it is, even for talking apes. And this is revealed through the complexity of the film’s antagonist, Proximus. He is not exactly wrong about humans, and Mae herself proves this when certain things I won’t spoil are disclosed. But the film works so well because of this tension between Noa and Mae as well as their conflictedness in dealing with Proximus. There’s lots to think about, questions still yet to be answered. What would Caesar do? Well, unbeknownst to perhaps everyone but Raka, who has studied the history and checked his notes, Caesar did his damnedest for what he believed in and ultimately failed because these intelligent apes, while distinct from humans in so many ways and, I’d argue, still better (the ending of the film proves this, in how noble and attuned to nature the Eagle Clan is even in their violence), are just as capable as making the same mistakes and committing the same terrible deeds. History repeats itself because we are wilfully ignorant or we’re clever enough to cherry pick from the past what we think will edify us and justify our actions in the present. Proximus is able to do this thanks to (surprise!) William H. Macy as his human advisor named Trevathon, reading to Proximus the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut and books on the Roman Empire. 

The film ends with this question still in the air. Caesar, with help from humans in his time, was the closest to answering it with a “yes” and bringing it to fruition. But that is history now and history dies with those who refuse to learn it and learn from it. But now it’s too late for the characters in Kingdom, as the film’s final moments show how things are about to get even more complicated and perhaps the question will finally be buried, tragically, with a “no.” I’m excited to see where the series goes (and what title they come up with for the next one) and I’m thankful that the best written, most nuanced blockbuster franchise of the century continues its run. This great writing is further proved by a brilliant ellipsis involving one scene with a telescope that Noa and Mae both look through. Maybe all hope is lost on earth, but for those of us who are curious and choose to know the history of this magnificent half-century old franchise, know then that the question could be officially settled in the stars.

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