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“Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” Conquers the Spring Box Office

Monkey business: Soona (Lydia Pecham), Noa (Owen Teague), and Anaya (Travis Jeffery) get a primer on what humans want in "Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes" / Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Monkey business: Soona (Lydia Pecham), Noa (Owen Teague), and Anaya (Travis Jeffery) get a primer on what humans want in "Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes" / Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Who would have thought “Planet of the Apes” would be the stealth franchise with the most enduring box office power? Pierre Boulle’s 1963 dystopian sci-fi novel spawned an iconic adaptation starring Charlton Heston (1968), which led to a four-movie cycle in the early seventies when franchises were not a thing - except for James Bond! Once it ran its course, it turned into a TV series. Tim Burton’s 2001 take may have flamed out, but the reboot that started with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (Rupert Wyatt, 2011) turned out to be a hit, followed by “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (Matt Reeves, 2014), and “War for the Planet of the Apes” (Reeves, 2017). “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” directed by Wes Ball, is the fourth movie in the series, and it took first place at the box office on opening weekend.

1. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes: $56.5 million

It would be hyperbole to say this is the most successful franchise ever - Marvel monopolized theaters and audiences’ imaginations for over two decades - but the latest cycle of “…Apes” movies is surprisingly sturdy. Four movies have hit the sweet spot where critics and the public coincide. What is the key to its success? To begin with, they come with enough time between them to not overstay their welcome - it’s unclear if this is by design or a necessity imposed by the demands of intensive CGI work necessary to animate their armies of ape characters. So far, those effects have been the best the technology can provide at the moment of release. You will see any “Thor: Love & Thunder” (Taika Waititi, 2022) monstrosity. Their narrative arc goes beyond superhero fare’s reliance on origin stories. There is an admirable balance between technical fireworks and compelling storytelling. As good as the FX are, they are not the main event, unlike “Avatar” - sorry, Mr. Cameron.

Village and scene stealer: Kevin Durand is memorable in voicing Proximos, a gorilla with a Roman Emperor complex. / Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox Studios.

Village and scene stealer: Kevin Durand is memorable in voicing Proximos, a gorilla with a Roman Emperor complex. / Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox Studios.

We can’t dismiss how the movie’s reliance on computer-generated characters prevents obsolescence by the exit of talent. For all the physical virtuosity of Andy Serkis, who originated both Gollum and Caesar, you can’t tell whether he is absent or not. The Achille’s heel of Superhero cinema is their biggest asset. When a star gets bored with the same role or demands too much money, the studios get their cue to recast and reboot. There’s no risk of that in this franchise, as long as they don’t rely too much on a human character. It's nice for the money counters, but it gives a chill to think that this hints at a future where flesh-and-bone performers will be unnecessary. 

Count me as surprised by the existence of “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.” The previous one, “War for the Planet of the Apes” (Matt Reeves, 2017), is seven years past - perhaps the pandemic accounts for some delay. Still, that movie closed a narrative cycle on a definitive note. The makes of the new film find a way in by jumping several generations into the future, when the mythical Caesar (Andy Serkis) has become an all-purpose symbol. Warmongering Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), a gorilla who fancies himself an emperor and uses force to dominate other apes, bastardizes Caesar's memory to prop up tyrannical power. Conversely, we find Raka (Peter Macon), an intellectual and peaceful orangutan who props up the historical Caesar’s memory as an avatar of ape-and-human peaceful coexistence. It's a sly punch at ideological appropriation. If enough time has passed, you can bend a leader's words to fit anybody's agenda.

Hey! Mischa Barton can play her mom!: Freya Allan is a prisoner of power-mongering gorilas in "Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes" / Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox Studios.

Hey! Mischa Barton can play her mom!: Freya Allan is a prisoner of power-mongering gorilas in "Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes" / Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox Studios.

Noa (Owen Teague) is the protagonist stuck between two worldviews. He is a young chimpanzee who belongs to a falcon-breeding clan. He - I can’t say “it,” so effective is the humanity infused in the apes - is preparing for his coming-of-age ceremony under the watchful gaze of his father, the clan leader. Our hero will mature but by fire. Proximus’ forces hit the village, kill Papa and many elders, and take the survivors prisoner. Noa eludes the violent minions and sets out to rescue his people - sorry, apes. Along the way, he finds Mae (Freya Allen, a dead ringer for a young Mischa Barton), a girl who mysteriously seems immune to the virus that rendered humans animalistic. Together, they find that Maximus enslaves apes to try to pry open a massive human-built bunker filled with man-made technology that he thinks will cement his power. 

Plenty of action and drama ensue as the plot careens to an open ending that reveals this entry as the first chapter in a new narrative cycle. The images of nature reclaiming space over cities are always fascinating - we catch up that we are in California when we see LAX's Theme building barely rising above towering trees. Whether the filmmakers can maintain the franchise level remains to be seen. Fans can stay at ease. The box office has spoken, and the Planet of the Apes will remain in orbit.

2. The Fall Guy: $13.7 million

The year’s nicest underperformer took an expected slip to second place. A two-week take of $42 million does not bode well for an action comedy budgeted at $130 million, so it will need foreign audiences to recoup Universal’s money. The most interesting thing about the movie is what its failure tells us about public discourse about film nowadays. Economic fortunes are more important than the movies themselves. Call it the “sports-edification” of film culture - and yes, we are part of the problem by covering box-office hits and misses, trying to understand the past and guess the future with torn ticket stubs.

3. Challengers: $4.68 million

Speaking of the future, Zendaya’s prospects at more adult roles seem safe. “Challengers” holds on to the third place. Luca Guadagnino’s sexy romantic comedy has a tennis player’s legs. Its total domestic grosses of $38 million for its 2-week plus run may seem modest, but it also has $30 million in international sales, for a grand total of $68.67 million. It's not too shabby for a movie with a $55 million budget. And bear in mind, it’s hard for comedy to translate well in foreign markets when it’s not physical satire. 

4. Tarot: $3.45 million

It is another holdover from last week, staying in place but with half the sales. Still, it's rather sweet for cheap horror fare.

5. Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire: $2.52 million

Will this monster tag team ever vacate the fifth place? Inquiring minds want to know. Who would have thought these two colossi would head spring’s sleeper hit?

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