Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes Review: Give Caesar His Due

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes promises a bright new future for cinema’s most beloved chimps.

Proximus Caesar in Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes
Photo: 20th Century Studios / Disney

In the grand scheme of things, Matt Reeves’ two entries into the Planet of the Apes series might be the highest peak this beloved franchise has experienced since the original 1968 movie. There have been other good movies about talking chimpanzees and the humans they enslave—a shocking amount too when you think about that premise for a minute—yet Reeves brought a somber, frigid tactility to the material we’d never seen before. So following in those footsteps, as well as those left by the monumental performance of Andy Serkis as Caesar (a Spartacus among apes), was always going to be a tough act.

But if I’m being honest, I missed how chatty the apes first were in the original Rod Serling screenplay from more than 50 years ago. While Reeves’ movie did an impressive job of setting the stage for how human civilization collapsed while a nascent strand of super smart gorillas rose up, by virtue of being set during the dawn of the Planet of the Apes, those movies never really got to savor the original concept: human supremacy is over, and the apes have inherited the Earth. Arguably for the better.

So in spite of the healthy skepticism many have heaped on the idea of The Maze Runner’s Wes Ball building his Kingdom atop Reeves and Serkis’ Apes, there’s always been room to return to the context that saw Chuck Heston wear a loincloth opposite Roddy McDowall. And to Ball’s credit, his return to that madhouse has found plenty of the peculiar gravitas that still makes the apes’ world compelling, even if the scope and scale of this kingdom leaves something to be desired.

While press notes tell me 300 years have passed since the events of War for the Planet of the Apes, the actual new movie only teases “many generations later” following a brief prologue set during the funeral for Serkis’ Caesar. Like any great figure in history that chimpanzee freedom fighter has now been consigned to the ages, and in his absence the most interesting idea revealed in Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is that in the centuries that passed, simian civilization is as susceptible to the distortions of time and vanity as the human ones which preceded it. Caesar is revealed to have faded into memory as both a messianic figure—one occasionally referred to as “the Law Giver”—and a kind of monarch who disparate descendants yearn to emulate. There is a menacing echo of the familiar when one ape who would be king declares, “I am Caesar now.”

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However, that is not genuinely the main thrust of the story. Rather this is a road trip narrative between a few unlikely companions: Noa (Owen Teague), our new young chimp protagonist; Raka (Peter Macron), a genuinely empathetic orangutan who belongs to a cult of Caesar worshippers; and Nova (Freya Allan), a human. The name “Nova” will likely ring a bell to longtime fans of the ape franchise, and this young woman is indeed a throwback to the series of yesteryear.

Mute and feral when we meet her, Nova is all helpless puppy dog eyes when she endears herself to Noa, who is himself in despair since a rival tribe of apes has attacked his village, kidnapping his peers and murdering his father. The apes have thus descended into the same type of petty internecine conflicts Caesar dismissed in the human survivors eons before these events. In fact, it is the rival clan’s leader, Proximus (Kevin Durand), who declares himself the new Caesar. He slso hopes to use Noa’s enslaved compatriots as a disposable workforce who will build his kingdom.

Hence Noa’s road trip to find and rescue his friends, which brings him into unlikely contact with a human woman who is smarter than she first appears, as well as a big-hearted orangutan that wishes to teach mercy and the virtue of turning the other cheek. Good luck with that considering where they’re headed.

The most impressive thing about Ball’s approach to Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is the fascinating world-building it indulges. This pulls more liberally from the original 1968 film, with sequences of gorillas hunting humans for seeming sport and of apes passing down draconian laws about areas which are forbidden. Yet there are tantalizing new ideas at play too, such as how the riddle of the past has faded just out of reach. Noa and Raka stare at ancient English signs in their world the same way Napoleon’s army once pondered over the mystery of hieroglyphs. And Noa’s home, which is an agrarian tribe with its own rituals and quasi-religious customs involving eagles, contrasts intriguingly with Proxima’s kingdom. The film piques your imagination, inviting you to also puzzle like Noa over these budding, competitive civilizations.

It is perhaps to the film’s biggest detriment, then, that while Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes introduces curious new ideas by way of simian metaphor, it is unable to wrestle them out into a wholly satisfying point. Most of the best entries in this franchise are not so secretly about something: racism, nuclear war, humanity’s inability to live in peace with those who are different. So the introduction of religion and historical revisionism in Kingdom resembles an opportunity never fully seized. The movie essentially goes back to playing the hits with it becoming once again a film about apes and humanity searching for a way to coexist.

This familiar plot thread is well played by Teague and Allan, who have a particularly elegiac sequence at the very end of the movie when Noa and Nova come to a final understanding, but it feels familiar and like the series is afraid to chart out new territory despite a vast realm of opportunity.

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Still, even if the story doesn’t quite break new ground, the masterminds at Wētā Workshop continue to astonish, reminding that audiences shouldn’t be exhausted by CGI—only with the boring kind that so many Hollywood movies slather across the screen. Conversely, the CG apes in Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes rekindle the same level of impressive immersion gleaned in the Reeves films, with the water droplets on Noa’s damp hair in some sequences looking as photorealistic as the locations and sets that Kingdom utilizes well (an extended prologue in a forested San Francisco cityscape notwithstanding).

The modern Planet of the Apes has at last proved itself to be a flourishing, beautiful world, and one which is again populated by great character actors who know how to push soulfulness through the motion-capture suits and digital paintings. Teague is endearing as Noa, Macron steals scenes with a warm smile as Raka, and Durand gives a particularly nasty vanity to the brutishness of Proximus Caesar, the ape who apparently spends a lot of time thinking about the Roman Empire.

In the end, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes proves there is plenty of life left in this world, and Ball has quickened its pulse by way of a surefooted entertainment. It makes a firm foundation for a new era in the saga. Next time, however, it might do to truly explore past the franchise’s comfort zone and see how weird and wild ape civilization has gotten when unshackled from humanity’s shadow.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes opens in theaters on Friday, May 10.


3 out of 5