In 1963, Pierre Boulle wrote the novel that got adapted into the original Planet of the Apes film in 1968. While the source text never got any sequels or spinoffs, the film adaptation expanded into a franchise that (going by Wikipedia’s count) is now comprised of five mainline entries, a failed reboot, and four prequel films, in addition to two short-lived TV shows, four video games, and a library of books and comics. Slowly but surely, this series is getting re-evaluated as one of the all-time great sci-fi franchises. How did we get here?

To start with, there’s the matter of the premise. This is a franchise about a post-apocalyptic world in which primates have evolved into the dominant species and humans have regressed into dumb animals. And that’s not even getting started on the time travel shenanigans involved. You’d forgive mainstream audiences for balking at the sheer absurdity of all this.

I’m sure it also didn’t help that 20th Century Fox kept slashing the budget with each successive entry in the mainline series. Even in the best of circumstances, there’s simply no getting around the fact that we’re watching actors in monkey suits. All the special effects magic of the 20th century could never sell the illusion enough to sell the premise. Even when 20th Century Fox poured $100 million into a reboot, with grandmaster Rick Baker on makeup effects and visionary Tim Burton directing, the end result was such a slapdash mishandled mess that it did far more harm than good to the franchise.

But then the next ten years happened. Ten years in which Weta Workshop revolutionized VFX though their work on the “Lord of the Rings” adaptations, and Robert Zemeckis broke himself in half advancing the practice of mo-cap CGI performances. Thus came Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, powered by Weta Digital and Andy Serkis leading a platoon of actors and animators delivering mo-capped CGI monkeys.

At long last, the technology had caught up with the premise. We could focus on the primates as genuinely sympathetic and emotive characters instead of people in rubber suits. Even better, because this was a rebooted prequel trilogy, time travel was no longer an issue and we could follow the process of a prototype cure for Alzheimer’s spiral out of control and create a world of apes. The bar for suspending disbelief was much lower, and Caesar gave us a compelling central character arc with the promise that he would grow into a foundational figure in the mythos. We could follow Caesar and his fellow apes build and navigate a post-apocalyptic world, using the premise as allegory to examine themes of war, xenophobia, and the human condition. Put it all together and it’s little wonder the Caesar arc quickly gained renown as one of the all-time great cinematic trilogies.

But there’s still this to deal with.

Every prequel is inherently a promise, and the filmmakers showed they were keenly aware of that when they put that throwaway Easter Egg into Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Literally from the very first movie of the rebooted timeline, the filmmakers explicitly stated the audience that this story would not end with Caesar, the Icarus is on its way, and we would eventually get to a new retelling of the original story. Which means until that day comes, we have to keep the series going.

Unfortunately, because we’re living in late-stage capitalism and Hollywood thrives on franchises that can keep churning out new content indefinitely, the filmmakers are clearly set on delaying that end goal for as long as they possibly can. Hence Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.

We pick up “many generations” after the previous film, after Caesar and his teachings have passed into legend. And because most apes are still illiterate, this unfortunately means that reliably authentic records of Caesar’s life story and philosophy are difficult to come by. Enter Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), a tyrannical narcissist who’s twisted around Caesar’s words to take his name and position himself as Caesar’s second coming. The upshot is that he’s used sheer charisma and brute force to bully his way into conquering so many tribes of apes and crush them all into submission under his rule.

Put it this way, do you remember Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire from a month ago? It’s pretty much the same deal.

Anyway, Proximus’ goons go chasing after a human girl (Nova, named after the character from the previous movie, played by Freya Allen) for mysterious reasons. Long story short, a peaceful agrarian tribe of chimps gets caught in the crossfire and pretty much the entire tribe is captured or killed. The sole survivor is Noa (Owen Teague), who of course sets out on a quest to get his vengeance and free his people and so on and so forth. His quest is complicated by Nova herself, in addition to a disciple of the original Caesar’s teachings (Raka, played by Peter Macon), and a mysterious human vault that Proximus is obsessed with opening for whatever reason.

Off the top, Wes Ball acquits himself surprisingly well in picking up the torch from Matt Reeves. Of course, I’m sure it helps that the mo-cap tech to make the primate characters possible had been more or less perfected by the time Ball came into the picture. Even so, the photography is spellbinding and the action scenes are quite engaging. Ball is reportedly set to get a live-action “Legend of Zelda” movie off the ground at long last, and this picture makes a compelling case for how and why he got that job.

On paper, there’s nothing objectively wrong with the movie. It’s overlong, sure, and the plot gets to be riddled with holes and trackability issues in the third act. Even so, Noa’s quest and development arc are perfectly serviceable. We get some neat extensions of the classic franchise themes regarding war and xenophobia. The jury’s still out on whether Freya Allen is the next hot young up-and-coming starlet, but she gets the job done.

Elsewhere in the supporting cast, it’s a pleasure to see William H. Macy stop by as a human character sympathetic to the apes, even if he doesn’t contribute much except for exposition and comic relief. Dichen Lachman pokes her head in at the last minute and she doesn’t get to do much, but she’s a striking screen presence nonetheless and I’m always happy to see her. But then we have Sylva (Eka Darville), Proximus’ chief enforcer. I was honestly disappointed to see Sylva get so much more screen time and impact on the plot than Proximus, because Sylva is so incredibly boring. He’s just a big wall of scary-looking muscle with no personality or motivation, big whoop.

As a standalone entry in and of itself, it’s a perfectly fine and entertaining movie. But that’s not enough.

Again, we’re coming off the reboot prequel trilogy, arguably the greatest film trilogy in cinema history. That trilogy promised and delivered the thrilling life story of the primate who effectively built the Planet of the Apes. This movie promises… what? Some chimpanzee who might eventually become the chieftain of a peaceful farming village? Someone with no basis in the lore of the mainline film series? Sorry, but that’s not much of a hook for this new chapter of the series.

Let’s be real: Now that Caesar is dead, all eyes are on the original Planet of the Apes and how we get to that point. Where’s Dr. Zaius? Where are Dr. Cornelius and Dr. Zira? Is this Nova supposed to be the same Nova of the original story, because certain events of the plot make that seem unlikely.

This could’ve been a movie about establishing the caste system of apes. This could’ve been a movie about the mainstreaming of humans as slaves. We have so many far more interesting and important benchmarks to cross before the Icarus finally arrives, so why the hell aren’t we getting a movie about those instead?! Why are we settling for a movie in which any kind of potential long-term ramifications were apparently tacked on to the closing minutes as an afterthought?!

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes feels like a palate cleanser. It gives the impression of a movie made to put some space between Caesar and whatever comes next. Entertaining in and of itself, sure, but it’s not enough. We know what’s coming, we want what’s coming, and the PTB can only crank out so many filler episodes before getting to the main course. Moreover, I find it rather concerning that this new chapter of the franchise opened up without much of any sign as to what the long-term goal is.

Shit or get off the pot, 20th Century Studios. You know what has to be done. Now get it over with so we can move on from the mythos’ past and into its future.


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