‘Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes’ Review: The Franchise Essentially Reboots with a Tale of Survival Set — At Last — in the Ape-Ruled Future

Kingdom of the Planet of the
Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” opens with Caesar lying in state, surrounding by a horde of mourning chimps, as his dead body is covered in flowers and ritually set on fire. The movie then cuts to the jungle, where a title informs us that it’s “many generations later.” In other words, the tale we’ve been watching in the last three “Apes” films — “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011), “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014), and “War for the Planet of the Apes” (2017) — is now ancient franchise history. I’m in the minority of viewers who would greet that news by saying, “Thank God.”

When classic IP gets remade, there is always a double agenda: tapping a new audience, but also serving the audience that has fond memories of the original. In “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” the center of dramatic action passes from Caesar over to Noa (Owen Teague), a serious young chimpanzee who has many Caesar-like qualities. Noa has grown up in the Eagle Clan, a thriving village of highly evolved apes whose tribal elders commune, in a mutually beneficial and holistic way, with predatory birds. The opening sequence has Noa and his two friends swinging at vertigo-inducing heights to pluck eggs out of eagle nests poised on clifftops. Noa proves himself to be a daredevil trapeze artist, but it’s not long before he runs into a pack of lethal apes led by an armored gorilla on horseback who resembles the 1933 teeth-gnashing King Kong.

These apes destroy the village, leaving Noa on his own. After many scenes of wandering and tests of his survival skills, he winds up at an ominous seaside empire of apes who rule the terrain (and any human straggler) just like the autocratic apes who were the antagonists of the original “Planet of the Apes,” back in 1968.

Another way to put that is that it has taken the franchise this long — three movies, or six hours of screen time — to arrive at the place that it arguably should have started at. Then again, I say that because I have mostly found the origin story of Caesar, and of how the apes became intelligent, and all the “ethical” cud-chewing along the way to add up to an inflated blockbuster bore. Andy Serkis certainly gave a fine motion-capture performance as Caesar (handsome and glowering, his Caesar was like the Daniel Craig of hairy primates), but the movies themselves were bloated, full of didactic allegory yet built all too obviously around their action set pieces. Some of that action was exciting, yet the films lacked the playful dystopian spark, the fanciful fun of “Planet of the Apes” (whose four sequels were, admittedly, mostly trash).

“Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” is, in effect, a reboot of its own franchise. I’m not sure that the film is going to be any more successful than the previous three installments (or even as successful). It’s essentially a two-and-a-half-hour chimp-in-the-wilderness adventure movie, directed by Wes Ball (the “Maze Runner” films) in the deliberately paced “classical” style of an episodic Hollywood saga from 50 years ago. It doesn’t have a cast of big-name stars. Yet the actors are abetted by the astonishingly organic facial expressions made possible by cutting-edge motion capture, and though the film is too long, I was more than gratified to sink into its relatively old-fashioned dramatic restraint.

Cut loose from his village, Noa meets a wise old orangutan named Raka (Peter Macon), with impish small eyes and a funny way of pursing his lips; he’s a relic who still believes in the teachings of Caesar. Noa also meets a human wild child (Freya Allan) who’s less innocent than she looks. As Noa, the gifted actor Owen Teague makes his presence felt. He displays not just cleverness and nobility but raw fear, an exciting quality to see in a hero.

The three characters team up, but Noa is eventually dragged to the ape kingdom, presided over by a fearsome cult leader named Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), who has stolen the authority — but not the morality — of his namesake. Proximus takes a special interest in Noa, who is essentially a prison-camp inmate, reunited with his mother and friends, who must defeat the empire from within. Here and there, we’re shown signs of the human civilization that’s been destroyed: the carcasses of buildings, escalators, and elevated train tracks, overgrown with shrubbery. Yet human technology is still the holy grail. The ape kingdom is built around a silo, with a closed vault of a door, that contains many wonders within (like weapons). That vault is Pandora’s Box, and Proximus wants to unlock it so desperately that he’ll sacrifice a handful of his apes every day to electroshock the door open.

Kevin Durand’s performance as Proximus, the leering bonobo monarch, is a piece of insinuating theater — he’s a leader who’s made the mistake of thinking everything is about him. And the rest of the cast makes its mark, from Sarah Wiseman as Noa’s heartstrong mother to Peter Macon as the whimsical seen-it-all Raka to William H. Macy as a scavenger who has carved out a place for himself in the ape kingdom like Dennis Hopper’s photographer in “Apocalypse Now.” “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” invites us to embrace the drama of apes fighting apes. By the end, though, in what is in effect a teaser for the next sequel, it looks as if the franchise’s blowhard version of the human race will be back after all. That could be enough to make you want to escape from the planet of the apes.

From Variety US