Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes Is a Perfunctory Blockbuster with Amazing Effects

Movies Reviews Planet of the Apes
Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes Is a Perfunctory Blockbuster with Amazing Effects

If there’s one film franchise that seems like it’s never running out of things to do, it’s Planet of the Apes. Initially based on Pierre Boulle’s novel of the same name, the original five-film run moved from the initial awestruck terror of Charlton Heston discovering an advanced simian civilization had taken over Earth to even kookier sci-fi story threads, including subterranean telekinetic humanoid mutants and apes that are thrust into a fish-out-of-water comedy after traveling back in time to 1970s America. The franchise has since spawned two failed television series (one animated), an infamously reviled remake from Tim Burton, and the surprise critical-darling 2010s reboot trilogy that rejuvenated the property. If there’s one constant in this life, it may be that people like seeing talking apes riding horses, shooting guns and engaging in political allegory. It should have never been a surprise that the Planet of the Apes franchise would rear its head again, though Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is content to build off the goodwill of the reboot trilogy rather than attempt another full reinvention. 

Wes Ball (director of the Maze Runner trilogy) takes charge from Matt Reeves, but continues to follow the legacy of science-project-turned-war-captain Caesar. Caesar’s quest for ape liberation, amid humanity’s downfall to the Simian Flu pandemic, and heroic death have afforded him martyrdom—legend status further down the timeline; as the film puts it, “many generations later.”

That’s where we meet up with Noa (Owen Teague), a young ape whose main character traits are that he is young and an ape. He lives with his clan at a small, remote outpost where they have developed a pocket of peaceful habitation following the many years over which apes have slowly grown to be the dominant, more intelligent species compared to the ever-rare vestiges of humanity. Noa doesn’t even know what a “human” is—all he knows is that his clan refers to those things as “Echos” and that he’s occasionally seen a small one scavenging for food from their stock.

That becomes the least of Noa’s problems when a rival ape tribe storms his home, killing his father and taking most of his family and friends hostage for someone calling themselves Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand). With that, Noa hops on his horse and sets out into the mysterious world beyond his encampment, and quickly learns how much his elders kept from him.

In building off of Reeves’ two films (who himself built off of Rupert Wyatt’s kickstart to the reboot movies, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), Ball and writer Josh Friedman veer away from the suffocatingly bleak and dour tone that fueled Dawn of and War for the Planet of the Apes, and more towards traditional action-adventure blockbuster spectacle. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes carries over a bit of its predecessors’ style—brutal violence, the harsh reality of differing political factions occupying a post-apocalypse—but there is a noted change from the previous film, which was pointedly aiming to be the Apocalypse Now of talking monkey movies. I was surprised to see just how much of Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes takes place in broad, sunny daylight, which could seem immaterial in the larger scope of the films, but signals a real transition between filmmakers. And still, Kingdom still feels like a natural extension of those previous movies.

That’s largely due to how much Caesar’s presence is still felt within this world so many decades after his passing. Kingdom is most interesting when attempting to grapple with his legacy, as Noa learns about his righteous leadership and virtuous teachings from the orangutan Raka (Peter Macon), who is essentially a Caesar scholar. Raka explains Caesar’s complicated relationship with humans but emphasizes the latters’ value: “They were important to Caesar, so they are important to me.” Noa has to reckon with a newfound understanding of human nature when he and Raka see that the scavenger from back home has been following them—and she can talk, announcing that her name is Mae (Freya Allan). She has her own business with Proximus Caesar, and believes Noa and Raka could be good partners.

Though the immediate plot machinations of Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes are more directly of the “ape vs. ape” variety than before, this dichotomy of human and ape coexistence is one carried over from the previous trilogy and, indeed, one inherent to the franchise itself. It’s compelling to see how the growth of the ape population, as humans have continued to shrink into the shadows, affects this dynamic so many years later. And yet, the movie only focuses on this when it feels like it, which is periodically, between lackluster plot developments.

This feeds into the disappointing nature of Proximus Caesar as a villain. He’s half-heartedly written, introduced about midway in and given a couple of requisite menacing monologues. But it’s never enough to make him a particularly imposing presence against Noa and his clan. He never inspires the same level of ambiguous complexity regarding the rise of apes at all costs, in the way Dawn was able to with Koba; Proximus Caesar’s manipulation of Caesar’s legacy isn’t explored much past having named himself Caesar. The lack of depth extends across the roster, with every ape (and Mae) given obligatory expository beats and suggestions as to why you should care about them, but without the time needed to manifest those aims into reality. It sucks the tension out of the central conflict, as every character is merely a mouthpiece moving the plot along. Not having any memorable characters is an egregious misstep after movies featuring Caesar, Koba and Maurice—granted, it took the course of their trilogy to establish them, but still, for these new characters, Kingdom is all we have to work with.

This too speaks to a larger problem with Ball’s film: Kingdom feels like table-setting for a more interesting movie that could come later down the line. Kingdom’s final revelations are enticing, but they’re at the expense of a story that exists purely to establish the potential of what Ball and Friedman want to do later with these new characters. Doing the work to build the future conflict they’re suggesting is essential, but so is having a movie that can stand on its own two feet.

If these bigger-picture problems seem harsh, you should know that I enjoyed the straightforward pleasures of what Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes has to offer. It’s perfunctory, and is sorely lacking the same breadth of story and character nuance that Reeves’ movies brought, but it also works as an appealing blockbuster with a solid visual sense and a small handful of well-crafted action setpieces. Ball and cinematographer Gyula Pados continue the reboot series tradition of cleanly composed, satisfyingly fluid sequences of apes jumping, climbing, swinging and beating the hell out of other apes; the smooth physicality of the ape acrobatics occasionally reminded me of the platforming elements of well-loved adventure games like Uncharted or Tomb Raider

And of course, you’d be hard-pressed to find better-looking visual effects from any movie that doesn’t take place on the planet Pandora. The VFX in Rise still hold up over a decade later, but that work is far surpassed by the continued achievements of how real these artists are able to make these apes look. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes has an even more pronounced focus on a world populated almost entirely by digitally-created characters, and the Weta FX team has poured an immense amount of labor and care into making them look stunning. Credit is also owed to the motion-capture performances for all the ape performers, who imbue an added sense of life into their characters where the script occasionally comes up short.

Despite its deficiencies, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes possesses enough of its own intriguing trajectory for Ball’s new stab at the franchise to have the opportunity to grow into its own singular new strand within the Apes canon. After 55 years of different directions, this is far from the most exciting Planet of the Apes has been, but it’s also far from the worst, and I’m open to seeing wherever this leads.

Director: Wes Ball
Writers: Josh Friedman
Starring: Owen Teague, Freya Allan, Kevin Durand, Peter Macon, William H. Macy.
Release Date: May 10, 2024

Trace Sauveur is a writer based in Austin, TX, where he primarily contributes to The Austin Chronicle. He loves David Lynch, John Carpenter, the Fast & Furious movies, and all the same bands he listened to in high school. He is @tracesauveur on Twitter where you can allow his thoughts to contaminate your feed.

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