‘Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes’ Review: A New Battle Begins

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes was almost a great movie, and you can see the contours of its greatness through the cracks of the good movie that it is, a bit like spotting the buried ruins of the human world beneath the overgrown trees and vines of the film’s ape civilization. This latest Apes — a direct sequel to the previous Planet of the Apes trilogy that also functions as a kind of soft reboot of the concept — starts off slow and takes its time.

Instead of the epic planetary battle promised by the title, its scale is intimate; one ape’s personal journey to find his family, and the relationships he builds along the way. But when the ape and his fellow travelers arrive at their destination, the script seems to lose its nerve, and reverts back to more typical blockbuster fare — still solid, but not nearly as fresh or as unusual as the earlier sections.

The previous three Planet of the Apes, released from 2011 to 2017, charted the rise of Caesar, a hyper-intelligent ape who rallies his kind to fight back against human oppression and then served as their reluctant warrior-leader during a lengthy conflict with the survivors of a “simian flu” that turned people into unintelligent beasts. A title card indicates Kingdom takes place “many generations later,” when apes have built their own agrarian society and it appears most vestiges of mankind have died out completely.

The central figure in this new tale is Noa (motion captured and voiced by Owen Teague), a young ape on the verge of … whatever you call the ape equivalent of manhood. (Apehood? He’s almost an adult.) Noa belongs to a tribe of apes that raises and trains eagles to serve as their scouts, security, and hunters. As Kingdom begins, he and his friends prepare for an initiation ritual where they will partner with their own birds for the first time.

20th Century Studios

READ MORE: Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes Kicks Off a New Apes Trilogy

Before that can happen though, Noa discovers evidence of men in the forests near his home. And then his village comes under attack by another group of apes, this one led by a charismatic power-mad dictator named Proximus (Kevin Durand), who needs slave labor to accomplish his twisted goals. Noa sets out for Proximus’ kingdom; along the way, he makes two key allies: a mute human woman named Nova (Freya Allen) and an intellectual orangutan named Raka (Peter Macon) who teaches Noa about the hidden history of man and ape.

These scenes, with Noa and Raka debating matters of philosophy, government, even astronomy — all from a distinctly ape perspective — are the moments where Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes offers glimpses of something really special. They’re quiet, meditative, even beautiful, and the motion-captured performances really bring these characters to life. Proximus and Raka both lay claim to Caesar’s “true” legacy and teachings, and at least for a little while the film grapples with this idea; how sometimes wildly disparate political movements can splinter off from the same historical foundation.

20th Century Studios

As in the previous Apes trilogy, Noa and his ilk are astounding digital creations by the  artists from Weta and other special effects houses. I don’t know why the apes of Planet of the Apes tend to look so much better than comparable CGI characters in other modern Hollywood productions, but they do. Director Wes Ball (The Maze Runner trilogy) lingers over their faces in close-up, and we can observe their astounding details at length; the way light passes through their fur, or the intriciate patterns of wrinkles and calluses on their paws. They have marvelously expressive faces to match the great voice performances. (Especially by Macon in this film — what a voice that guy has!) The apes seem just as real as the flesh and blood actors, and the script by Josh Friedman generally does good job bringing out their inner lives, especially in that long middle stretch.

Then, I confess, the movie lost me a little bit. While Kevin Durand makes Proximus an intimidating villain, the post-apocalyptic trappings of the scenes where his character stands before his followers and proclaims “What a wonderful day!” over and over felt familiar from Mad Max: Fury Road and elsewhere. And while the film seems to be headed toward a philosophical battle between Caesar’s two disciples, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes’ actual climax is a lot louder and a lot less interesting than that, with some generic fights and explosions and chases.

20th Century Studios

At one point during that long final third, a character we’re meant to see as a misguided villain warns another character we’re meant to see as heroic that they’ve “got to stop thinking about the way things were and start thinking about the way things are.” The problem is… that’s actually good advice, if not in the context of this specific scene then at least for studio executives charting the course of Planet of the Apes.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes’ conclusion abandons all the novel things it had brought to the property in favor of far more standard action fare, in a style and tone that seems ripped out of a totally different movie. These scenes also seem hellbent on dragging the Apes concept back towards the conflict and structure of the earlier films, and away from the compelling new dimensions Ball and Friedman had brought to the property just a few scenes earlier. It’s a big disappointment.

The Apes movies often contemplate the inescapable nature of destiny; despite their heroes’ best efforts to change their ways, they invariably wind up back on the same path, and humanity (and ape kind) seem doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over. I suppose in that sense the stink of a retread hanging over Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes’ ending is, ironically, in keeping with that spirit. And there are some scenes here as lively and as thoughtful as any in this great series’ history. But then that final sequence reminds viewers that this is a franchise still thinking about the way things were, and not with the way things are — or could be in the future.

RATING: 6/10

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