A Refreshing New Entry in Apes Franchise

Almost all of the movies in the Planet of the Apes franchise focus on answering an understandable question: How did this planet become, well, a planet of the apes? The original 1968 movie and infamous 2001 Tim Burton remake are about astronauts who are stunned to realize the planet they crash-landed on was Earth all along, and the first sequel ends with the planet getting blown up. But every other movie (and there have been 10 in total) has been about the downfall of humanity and the rise of the apes. The recent reboot trilogy, Rise, Dawn, and War of the Planet of the Apes, was a masterful primate apocalypse. By the end of it, the apes had risen and it had dawned on everyone that they’d won the war. It’s their planet, now. So… what next?

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, the first movie in seven years and the possible start of a new trilogy, has a chance to actually explore this world rather than be forced to establish it. Freed from being another stop on an essentially predetermined apocalypse narrative, the movie can tell a smaller story that builds up to being an epic. 

Caesar, the ape revolutionary who led the chimps, gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, and gibbons to dominance in the reboot trilogy, is long dead by the time Kingdom’s action begins. (Andy Serkis, who famously brought Caesar to life with the help of some ground-breaking motion-capture technology, does not return for Kingdom but he’s listed as a consultant.) It’s generations later, enough time for the apes to have founded their own clans and mini-societies independent of one another. Noa (Owen Teague), is a member of the Eagle Clan, a chimp society that practices falconry with golden eagles and leads a peaceful existence. The Eagle clan doesn’t know anything about how apes took over the planet—they don’t need to. What they do know about humans (reduced to mute pests) is inaccurate and, as far as they know, irrelevant.

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Compared to most sequels of long-running franchises, the way Kingdom deals with lore is very interesting. Movies like Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire insist upon the importance of their franchise’s history. The Ghostbusters are important to you, the moviegoer (or so the movie hopes), and therefore they and their history are important within the world of the movie. So many modern franchises are built around Easter eggs, and major plot points are an excuse to bring back something from earlier in the franchise that will reward dedicated fans for recognizing it. Kingdom, meanwhile, actually engages with its own lore rather than take it for granted. Because, while the apes of the Eagle Clan don’t know their kind’s past, other apes are trying to carry on a misremembered legacy or twist history for their own ends. And, although they’ve decisively lost the position of the planet’s dominant species, humans might not be totally out of this thing yet. 

The Eagle Clan’s halcyon existence is shattered when they’re attacked by another group of apes, eventually revealed to be serving an ambitious, charismatic bonobo named Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand). Noa’s father is killed and the rest of his clan taken hostage by Proximus’ soldiers, forcing Noa to embark on a voyage to track them down and, hopefully, rescue them. He’s joined on this trek by Raka (Peter Macon), an orangutan who preaches Ceasar’s gospel and attempts to keep his legacy alive through the oral tradition—though a lot has been lost or tweaked as by a game of telephone over the decades. Rounding out the trio is a human woman, played by The Witcher’s Freya Allan, who seems to have more going on behind her eyes than the average homo sapien.

Proximus, whose chosen name of Caesar is not an accident, wants to be this era’s equivalent of the ape founding father and is more than willing to cash in on the symbolism and twist lore to his own purposes. He does know about what humanity used to be, and he hopes that an impregnable vault he’s constructed his kingdom around holds ancient secrets that can propel his apes into a more powerful future. Not all of the various primates in Kingdom share this goal, though, and things come to a head as various parties attempt to uncover the past, keep it locked away, or simply rescue their friends and family. 

Save for some late reveals that presumably could be explored in sequels, the conflict in Kingdom ultimately comes down to whether or not the status quo should be maintained. That might seem underwhelming, at first, but the relatively small stakes are refreshing, and a testament to the fact that the Planet of the Apes can tell a story in its world without having to totally upend it. (The special effects, always a highlight in these films, continue to be revolutionary, which furthers the sense of immersion in this setting as an established place rather than one that’s in flux. With very few exceptions, the apes don’t ever read as special effects, the motion capture and animation so adept that you could see yourself forgetting that they’re not real.)

It would have been easy for Kingdom to feel unnecessary—a fourth movie in a reboot trilogy that happens to come just a few months after another ape-centric blockbuster? The pleasant surprise, then, is that Kingdom is forced to justify its existence on the strength of the story it tells on the planet of the apes, not merely because it’s the planet of the apes. The legacy is there in smart ways that make sense within the fiction of the movie, but the title has made the shift to being a fully rounded and adaptable setting rather than a premise.