Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (dir. Wes Ball)

By: Adam Freed

In recent years big budget popcorn entertainment has reached critical mass.  In the wake of the Marvel quality implosion and the debatable impact of the conclusion of Disney’s “Skywalker Saga” there exists a tangible void in reliable franchise filmmaking.  Thankfully director Matt Reeves confidently filled that void when he took over the Planet of the Apes franchise with the trilogy’s middle and culminating installments Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and the sublime War for the Planet of the Apes (2017).  Reeves teamed with motion capture impresario Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings), who as Caesar the saga’s central protagonist, transitioned audiences from a world of human domination into one in which the idea of emotionally investing in a computer generated character, a cognitively advanced ape, became acceptable.  At the conclusion of Reeves’ run of primate prosperity the franchise said goodbye to Caesar and therefore Serkis and too turned the page on Reeves (The Batman) leaving much space for skepticism when Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes was announced a little over a year ago.  With all of the spectacle and most of the punch that audiences have come to expect of the franchise, Wes Ball (The Maze Runner) proves apt in his reprisal of a series that the box office will need far more than it may realize in the coming years. 

After wisely sewing the finale of the Caesar saga into the opening moments of Kingdom, Wes Ball sets forth on the unenviable task of hitting the reset button “many generations” in the future with a new set of central simian characters.  Aiding in this transitionary challenge are the diverse landscapes captured deliciously by cinematographer Gyula Pados.  What makes the backdrop of the franchise’s fourth modern installment so rich is that the natural world has now been divorced from human disturbance for long enough that what were once city skylines are now reduced to believable artifacts of humanity, reclaimed by flora and fauna.  In these barely recognizable ruins of humanity’s triumph, audiences meet Noa (Owen Teague), a distant descendant of Caesar’s time, and a young primate ready to lead his clan of eagle taming tree dwellers into a future free of outside influence.  Colliding with this utopian naturalist desire though is a rival clan of apes lead by Proximus Caesar, a delusional and megalomaniacal ruler who, with the influence of learning human history, desires to build his own version of the Roman Empire by capturing as many apes as possible and forcing the unwilling to become subjects of his false kingdom.

The major challenge facing Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, avoided by its three predecessors, is that for the first half of the film there are no human characters through which audiences can mirror their emotional state.  Unlike the original Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), in which James Franco was an anchoring force who with Andy Serkis’ Caesar, allowed audiences to calibrate the balance of CG and human characters.  The subsequent films Dawn and War leaned into the undeniable allure of human acting talents Gary Oldman and Woody Harrelson respectively to play foil to Caesar’s hero, a cross species balance that proved successful.  Ball’s film however enjoys no such luxury as the age of human influence has passed and for the lion’s share of the film's first act franchise fans must sit through a great deal of CG character interaction, which is sure to meet with debatable reception.  With this tepid critique aside, the CG employed by Kingdom is beautiful, and the primate characters look, sound and feel as real as can be.  A crucial tipping point that could very easily have been the film’s undoing.     

Once introduced to the majestic new world of the apes, layering in human survivors Mae, played alluringly by Freya Allen (Gunpowder Milkshake) and William H. Macy’s Trevathan, Kingdom begins to take shape.  While mileage on what amounts to a subplot posing as a primary conflict may vary, there is no question that Wes Ball’s first installment of his forthcoming trilogy is sure to satiate those with a taste for summer blockbuster season.  Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is a grand scale expensive popcorn-infused spectacle that theater franchises will surely welcome for ages to come.  

Target Score: 7/10  Overcoming the difficulties of saying goodbye to both a reliable main character and director, the Planet of the Apes franchise proves itself worthy of a new generation of filmgoers as it presents grand scale escapist entertainment at the perfect time to combat underwhelming box office returns.