‘Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes’ Recharges a Classic Saga With Roaring Imagination

Just when franchise fatigue and cynicism has set in, a movie like “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” appears to reassure us that not everything has to remain a bleak factory product. It is both a sequel and revamp of the “Planet of the Apes” franchise’s most current edition, which began with the excellent “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” in 2011. That movie was followed by two astounding sequels in 2014 and 2017, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “War for the Planet of the Apes.” What makes this series so special is that it continues to be made in the spirit of actual cinema and crafty storytelling. It acknowledges a sense of the passage of time, of history. As a fable it’s one of the great modern sci-fi sagas, with this new entry evocatively imagining a simian Dark Ages.

“Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” is set a few centuries after the events of “War for the Planet of the Apes,” which ended with chimpanzee leader Caesar leading his fellow ape rebels to a lush new home. What used to be Los Angeles are now woodlands. Chimpanzees Noa (Owen Teague), Anaya (Travis Jeffery), and Soona (Lydia Peckham) live with the Eagle Clan in an elevated village. It is time for Noah to undergo a rite of passage involving finding an eagle egg to then bond with the great bird once it hatches. A sudden encounter with a roaming human, Mae (Freya Allan) ends with the loss of Noa’s egg and a brutal raid by the warlord ape Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand). After Proximus’ forces take the Eagle Clan prisoner to his base, Noa embarks on a journey to rescue them, along the way meeting Raka (Peter Macon), an orangutan with bits of knowledge of a bygone era.

The previous three films’ most popular feature was the groundbreaking motion capture performance by Andy Serkis as Caesar, which raised the debate over whether the Academy should have nominated the actor for his work. Yet, as cinema the franchise deserves acclaim for being genuine pop art with stunning breadth. After Rupert Wyatt kicked things off strongly with “Rise,” Matt Reeves’ two sequels were crafted like classic revolutionary war epics. Like Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy, they masterfully reimagined the material instead of copying the originals. “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” wonderfully continues the trend by continuing the timeline as it recharges the premise. Director Wes Ball, previously known for the “Maze Runner” movies, has his own style that is still grand and stark. 

If the last three movies dealt with the virus that eventually gave apes an evolutionary leap and nearly destroyed humankind, culminating in an apocalyptic war, “Kingdom” is about a world in transition. Think of the terrain as a new Dark Ages. Raka enlightens Noa on the idea that humans were once mighty, but all that’s left are traces in ruins, as in the days when knowledge of the Roman and Greek classical world was fleeting. The original Caesar’s symbol is now a talisman and Proximus perverts the ape leader’s now ancient slogans, such as “apes together strong,” to form a cult of personality. He keeps a human, Trevathan (William H. Macy), around to read him Kurt Vonnegut. Ball was reportedly influenced in his approach by Mel Gibson’s Mayan epic “Apocalypto,” and it shows in fire-lit scenes evoking old civilizations spread out and battling each other. There remain small nods to the original 1968 “Planet of the Apes,” like humans now reduced to rags, gathering near rivers where ape hunters ride in to snatch them. The apes are now the dominant species, but they’re own structures are medieval and not the advanced society we know they’re headed for. 

Like Reeves, Ball is not making a generic action movie. There are not that many battle sequences or a reliance on violence to keep the plot moving. In the tradition of genuine science fiction, what proves more engaging are the ideas. Mae could have been reduced to being a human buddy to Noa, instead the screenplay by Josh Friedman keeps a certain level of tension. These are two species caught in the middle of an evolutionary transition, with one clearly wanting to survive. When Mae speaks words, Raka and Noa are stunned. No longer are humans dangerous adversaries, just a subspecies worthy of being pets. The brilliance of the concept, going back to the more satirical 1968 classic, is the idea of forcing us to imagine ourselves as no longer in charge. The way we’re meant to gasp at the brutality or dismissiveness of the ape rulers should also be sobering. We already act this way amongst ourselves.

Visually “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” has a sparse, apocalyptic look that keeps it grounded and believable. Proximos’ base/kingdom is a windswept fortress by the sea, where waves crash against walls his prisoners are forced to build. His obsession is to open a great vault containing human secrets he suspects will give him great power. Certain sights are kept subtle enough so once the eye pays real attention, we’re surprising ourselves realizing that vine-covered structure on the horizon is all that’s left of LAX. Noa and Raka wander through the ruins of an ancient mall the way we can now stroll through what the Greeks and Egyptians left behind. No one in the story knows what any of this is because so much time has passed and history has been lost. If nuclear war was to erupt, wherever you’re reading this review now will probably meet the same fate. 

Once again this franchise also sets a standard for motion capture effects. The work done to create the ape characters is so pristine that the mind simply accepts their presence as beings inhabiting the story. It’s so challenging to convey genuine emotion and to sense the wheels turning in these personas. Never is action used to make the job easier. The apes have long conversations, moments of reflection, inspiration and sorrow. The first “Planet of the Apes” movie was also acclaimed in its time for groundbreaking makeup work, while its sequels have become the stuff of cult fame and popcorn jokes. This current series belongs ranked alongside epics such as “The Lord of the Rings.” It is an admirable fantasy with scope and heart. The twists at the end are not cheap, but work like exciting revelations about where the two species, humans and apes, now stand. Both gaze up at the stars for different reasons, leaving us in awe waiting for the next stage in this franchise’s evolution.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” releases May 10 in theaters nationwide.