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Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes Is a Worthy, Slightly Wonky Apes Adventure

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Director Wes Ball and the team behind Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes had massive paws to fill with the latest installment in this long-running franchise, and we’re happy to report they’ve done just that. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes isn’t as tight or focused as the previous films, but it offers a bigger, more sprawling adventure with a plethora of different ideas throughout, each more interesting than the next. You are never quite sure what, if anything, the movie is saying, but that doesn’t matter because it’s wholly engaging from beginning to end.

After a surprising prologue that’s too big of a spoiler to discuss, Kingdom picks up “many generations” after the events of the previous films. There we meet Noa (Owen Teague), a young adult ape who, along with friends Anaya and Soona, sees something mysterious in the woods. The audience knows it’s a human but Noa and friends have never seen one, so they bring news of it to their elders. From there, dominos begin to fall leading to a series of cataclysmic events, culminating in Noa setting off into the unknown regions of the world to save his friends and family.

What’s instantly interesting about Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is that the majority of characters only know a world where apes have always been the dominant species. Yes, human relics are everywhere—abandoned buildings, murals, etc.—but they might as well be leaves on the ground or branches on a tree. So, as Noa sets off on his journey, he quickly begins to realize the world is not what he thought it was. With each discovery he makes, the curtain gets pulled back a little bit further on what’s happened in the hundreds of years since the last film and it’s constantly fascinating.

Image for article titled Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes Is a Worthy, Slightly Wonky Apes Adventure

Image: Fox

On the journey, Noa ends up meeting a young girl named Mae (Freya Allan). Mae’s integration into the film not only broadens Noa’s mind but, later, completely blows it once he realizes there’s more to her than meets the eye. That relationship, along with the teachings of an ape named Raka (Peter Macon) about a Christ-like ape figure named Caesar, are all swirling around Noa’s head when he reaches the kingdom of Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand). Proximus is a powerful, charismatic, ambitious ape who has more than a few secrets himself, most of which tie into the journey of Noa and Mae and offer even more tantalizing revelations.

A huge part of what makes the story of Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes so impressive is how the film’s emotional stakes and narrative threads are conveyed through Teague’s performance in collaboration with the work of Weta. Weta did the VFX for the previous Apes films too, so obviously they were going to be great. But technology has only advanced in the years since and now it’s on a whole other level. Through Noa’s facial expressions, body language, movement, and more, we watch a young ape who’s initially confused and slowly becomes an increasingly confident leader. He’s forced to face some harsh realities in the film and each one manifests in a physical change thanks to the VFX. That level of quality carries over to all the apes, of course, but Noa is our hero and entry point, so his looks are by far the most important.

Ball and writer Josh Friedman (War of the Worlds) have also expanded the world of Planet of the Apes with all manner of very specific details that give the film layers upon layers of interest. Noa’s people call themselves the Eagle Clan, because they keep eagles as pets and it has become a symbol of their large, extended family. Proximus lives on a crashed cruise liner and uses many things one might expect to find on such a ship—like, say, a library—to great effect. And while the film’s settings are largely just overgrown, post-apocalyptic landscapes, a semi-recognizable landmark here and there let fans know exactly where these apes are walking. Everything about the world feels almost pointedly intentional as if each detail carries its own mystery.

Image for article titled Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes Is a Worthy, Slightly Wonky Apes Adventure

Image: Fox

However, as beautiful and considered as everything on screen is, once the stories of Noa, Mae, and Proximus come to a head, the specific goal they all share is not particularly exciting. It unfolds in a visually stunning, propulsive way, but if I was just to say it—“They’re all trying to X”—it’s kind of boring. It also doesn’t help that while Noa is exposed to all manner of different ideas and points of view along his journey—primarily from Raka and Proximus but others too—the movie never really advocates one over the other. You assume it does, and maybe it was intended to, but if so, it’s not easily discernible. As a result, the densely packed narrative ends up feeling a little bit empty because we never quite settle on what the characters have learned and will take with them in the future.

That future is also muddled because as the movie nears its end, what you thought was a story about one thing is actually about something else entirely. In a big franchise movie like this, you expect some kind of tease for the future but Kingdom can’t quite nail the balance of wrapping things up in a satisfying manner and then adding to it after the fact. Here, the two are more entangled and it leaves the movie with some great places to go moving ahead, but not as much closure as one may have liked.

Those minor gripes aside, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is just a damn good film. There’s a great story, incredible visuals, characters you care about, and stakes that keep you emotionally invested. It’s not as solid as any of the three previous films, but it’s right up there, and that’s saying something. Planet of the Apes fans, and fans of sci-fi adventure in general, are sure to enjoy it.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes opens Friday.

Update: An earlier version of this review named Weta Workshop as the VFX creator; the correct name is Weta.


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