Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes: this franchise hates humans

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When I was young, my mom’s friend’s kids came over to watch DreamWorks’ 1998 classic The Prince of Egypt.

Less than 10 minutes in, they tearily demanded we turn it off. It wasn’t the violence against the enslaved people that was getting to them. When they watched those people’s backs cut up by whips, they weren’t empathizing with the people’s pain. They were imagining it happening — apparently far more tragically — to horses.

It’s that misanthropy — cloaked in reverence of nature’s contrasting purity — that’s fuelled my hatred of the new Planet of the Apes series.

It’s a pointed but shallow reboot that flips the script of the classic 1968 film by pitching humans as cartoonish villains, and apes as a metaphor for an unrelentingly exploited enslaved people. It also proves these movies have officially outlived their usefulness. 

But now a fourth, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, is riding the near-flattened ripples of its predecessors to the shore.

WATCH | Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes trailer: 

The good news here is that as the events stretch further and further from the previous trilogy’s revolution and messiah metaphors, they’ve become less overt. The bad news is that without that central purpose at its core — or many humans to rally against — this fourth entry has even less of a reason to exist. 

After a few lines at the beginning of Kingdom comparing the trilogy’s chimpanzee champion, Caesar, to Jesus Christ, we learn we’re a few centuries on. After Caesar’s revolution and a monkey-improving, human-killing virus made the chimps geniuses and nearly wiped out humans, life on Planet Earth now looks very different.

We follow Noa (Owen Teague), a peacefully unambitious chimp eking out an existence with his eagle-raising tribe — until the army of nearby despot Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand) puts a branding iron down on Noa’s lush paradise, and kicks off one of those wonderfully human war-like things Caesar at one time so hated humans for.

A growling gorilla wearing a crown and epaulettes speaks.
Proximus Caesar (played by Kevin Durand) in a still from Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (20th Century Studios)

Of course, that irony is something of the point, and what elicits some of Kingdom’s uniqueness in disengaging from the singular ape-revolution angle. 

Because here, Noa barely even interacts with humans — aside from one cowering, mud-covered woman named Nova — let alone hates them. By this point, they have been so thoroughly massacred they’re viewed as near-mythic, yet pathetic, remnants of a former time. 

Humans have mostly lost communication and higher-level thinking, the very attributes that Woody Harrelson’s character — the villainous general brought in to eradicate the simian scourge once and for all — fought to defend in War for the Planet of the Apes.

There, his evil, self-stated goal was to (in an admittedly insane and vile way) stave off humankind’s incipient genocide, which he feared “would destroy humanity for good this time. Not by killing us, but by robbing us of those things that make us human.”

Remember, he was the bad guy.

Bad human, good ape

But he was only made a villain through this franchise’s endless and awkward contrivances, which show up with mind-numbing consistency. 

Throughout the series: there are the evil humans, seemingly dipped in vats of superheated cruelty juice, bent on destroying the peaceful apes despite having little motivation and an inability to do the one thing we’re theoretically good at: kill. 

There is its lost hero, Caesar, bent into log-line knots to try and literally eradicate humanity, while staying completely morally blameless. And in every movie is an ineffectual but pure human tagging along, doe-eyed, to prove there’s some good in us, after all — if only we behaved more like those golly-gee animals close to the natural world. 

But even with those writing crutches, still somewhat evident in Kingdom, my deep hatred of these movies is not due to their direction — the plotting, cinematography and character work is actually usually quite strong. 

The issue is deeper, and — though it distracts with an inter-ape struggle for power — Kingdom still rests on the inescapable metaphor there since this franchise’s first.

A dirty woman cowers in tall grass.
Freya Allan appears as Nova, one of the few humans left to fend for themselves in the Planet of the Apes franchise as it heads to a conclusion predicted in the 1968 original. (20th Century Studios)

Because aside from that famous final line, the 1968 original (based on the book by author and resistance fighter Pierre Boulle) concerned itself more with the impermanence of humankind.

Planting a U.S. flag on a new planet is a joke. Charlton Heston’s character laments, “Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego,” and we end with one of the most iconic examples of ephemerality in cinematic history. Altogether, it emphasizes the unsettling sensation of having an assumed pre-eminence — either as human, or member of a majority — reversed.

That idea did get screwy into the 1970s sequels. But the supposedly clever gimmick that allowed these 20th-century movies to exist is just insultingly myopic, misanthropic and immature — in equal parts. 

Telling the story of humanity’s downfall and ape’s rise from the ape’s perspective narratively demands us to empathize with the ape.

And like any story actually centred around animals — Free Willy, Because of Winn-Dixie and the irresponsibly stupid War Horse — the thesis is that there is something uniquely and innately dangerous about humankind. And there’s something better about animals and their purer, natural states.

Animal movies

While that take suggests a safe way for the critic who wants to shove all of humanity underwater so they themselves can separate themselves from it, the conceit of Planet of the Apes gets even more confused.

Because it’s not just an animal movie franchise: it’s also a civil rights one. Now your animals borrow their visual language from Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camps, Black slave revolts and, in Kingdom, Indigenous peoples with their lands and practices stolen from them in the name of progress. 

Taking surface-level ideas from Amistad‘s fight for recognition as a person would be bad enough — at least there’s something to question. But using the type of exploitative violence and non-existent message seen in Will Smith’s Emancipation to push your enslaved-ape story down the track for another decade makes your thesis both shallow and regressive.

And it turns your sci-fi franchise into Limitless — if it also liked to ask, “No, but where are you really from?”

Because comparing subjugated people to animals has its own controversial history. But using them as the noble savage — a long-ingrained trope that othered people of colour to suggest they had both lower intelligence and more of a connection with nature by an assumed distance from civilized behaviour — only complicates it for the worse.

Kingdom‘s use of that weird, symbolized grouping is watered down due to the mostly ape-focused plot, but brings it right back in the finale with the unprompted, unearned and frankly unneeded line:

“Humans will never give up. Not until you claim all things for yourselves.”

It reads as if the writers just couldn’t help but return to their favourite well. And still the messages Kingdom hides under action are so self-evident that sitting through the uncanny valley of it all feels vaguely insulting. We don’t need hours of synthetic, impossible to empathize with faces to learn we shouldn’t enslave or eradicate one another.

That said, it’s at least still fun seeing chimps ride horses.

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