KINGDOM OF THE PLANET OF THE APES Review: A Disappointing Devolution of the Species

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KINGDOM OF THE PLANET OF THE APES Review: A Disappointing Devolution of the Species

Planet of the Apes, one of the longest running and most consistent science fiction film series in cinema history, returns this week with its tenth entry, Wes Ball’s Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.

Diving back into the world reimagined by Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves’ lauded trilogy -- Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and War for the Planet of the Apes -- is no easy task,;the bar has been set very high. Does Kingdom live up to its predecessors? Is it the progression of the world that fans of the series – a number among whom I very much count myself – are hoping for? It is a tricky question, but ultimately the answer will depend on what draws the viewer to these films, and for those looking at something more than a sci-fi action extravaganza, the answer may be a disappointing one.

After saying a brief but poignant farewell to Caesar, the hero of the previous trilogy of films, Kingdom leaps forward in time to an epoch far enough in the future that nature has largely reclaimed the monuments of the human world. Young apes Noa (Owen Teague), Anaya (Travis Jeffrey), and Soona (Lydia Peckham) are on a quest to secure the egg of an eagle that they will then raise and train as a coming-of-age ritual in their tribe. However, the celebration of their maturation is short lived when Noa’s egg is broken and he is forced to undertake a late-night excursion into the forest to replace it before the next morning’s ceremony.

While on this mission, he stumbles upon a tribe of violent apes who end up following him back to his village and laying waste to the homes of his friends and family, taking the villagers as prisoners and marching them off to some unknown fate. Determined to free his people, Noa strikes out on a dangerous adventure filled with new friends, new ideas, and one very unusual human who is going to make this journey unlike any he’s ever imagined.

One feature of the Apes films over the decades is that – with the notable exception of Tim Burton’s 2001 reimagining – they largely follow the same central story. The recent trilogy acts as a loose prequel to the 1968 film and its subsequent entries and Kingdom similarly utilizes the legend of Caesar as a point of departure for its events, but it lacks the emotional core and thematic and tonal cohesion of those films in a way that clearly puts it a rung below them on the evolutionary ladder.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes focuses largely on the conflict between Noa and his compatriots – including new additions Mae (Freya Allen), a young girl he encounters in the world with the miraculous ability to speak, and Raka (Peter Macon), a wise orangutan who is a follower of the original teachings of Caesar that have been long since abandoned or twisted – and the tyrannical king Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), who searches for human technology in order to attempt to tighten his grip on this new world. Noa and his party utilize intellect and cunning to plan an escape from Proximus Caesar’s encampment for what remains of his tribe while the villain attempts to quash any resistance through force.

The premise is solid, and certainly echoes previous entries in the series, but it is the treatment and tonal imbalance that weakens Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes to the point of collapse.

In this distant future, humans still exist, but are no long seen as a threat, having been rendered mute and devolved to a state of scavenging beasts in the forests. This has allowed the ape communities to thrive and develop their own identities.

Noa’s – for example – is a society of eagle trainers; without the threat of human attack, the communities have grown comfortable, which leads to a disarming amount of slice of life humor that doesn’t play well with the inherent drama of this story. Among the traits of the most recent trilogy is a sense of high drama in which humor, where it exists at all, is desperate, not flippant.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes replaces the urgency of finding a way to survive with more common interpersonal struggles, it’s not that this cannot be a successful route, however, the film refuses to choose a lane and the tonal pendulum careens back and forth in a disconcerting way.

There’s awkward humor, ill-timed romance, and too many unexplained coincidences to count. Perhaps the current trend of insisting upon two plus hours in every one of our epics meant that Kingdom was pre-ordained to become overstuffed with inconsequential fluff, but that’s no excuse for something as sloppy and unfocused as this film ultimately is.

Vast leaps of logic, unlikable characters, messy action choreography, and disposable characters – including the great William H. Macy in a completely unnecessary part that serves no purpose – all hinder Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes from reaching the heights of its antecedents, both recent and distant. The film is beautiful to look at, there’s no doubt about that, and the vision of an Earth that has attempted to erase the harm inflicted upon it by man is both chilling and hopeful. The apes themselves look fantastic and the motion-capture performances are quite good – though it’s an impossible task to ask them to recreate the magic that was Andy Serkis’s Caesar.

There’s also the requisite cultural commentary that is part and parcel of the Planet of the Apes series, with Proximus Caesar and his lackeys declaring that their barbarism against both humans and dissenting apes is “For Caesar.” It’s not a far stretch to connect this quasi-religious fervor with the current state of organized religion in which parables and morals are twisted to suit the ambitions of the powerful.

These themes, however, are subservient to sloppy storytelling and illogical plot machinations that crumble under scrutiny. The third act escape from Proximus Caesar’s camp in particular defies logic in a way that I just could not stomach. Somehow Noa and his friends are able to freely wander in and out this impenetrable prison camp to set up some massive ape exodus and not a single member of Proximus’s clan notices a thing? That’s just lazy.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes wants so badly to be the launch point for a new generation of fans, but for those returning to the series it could be seen as a huge disappointment. As a fan who finds something to love about every one of the Apes films – yes, even Burton’s – I was an easy mark for Kingdom, but that just makes this all the more frustrating.

As a film, it is operating with stolen valor, attempting to ride on coattails of much better stories, but with none of the creative talent that made any of the previous films, and it shows. I should feel for these characters, they should be real to me, there is ample precedent for turning these apes into sympathetic characters, but in the end, I just felt relieved that it was over.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

  • Wes Ball
  • Josh Friedman
  • Rick Jaffa
  • Amanda Silver
  • Freya Allan
  • Kevin Durand
  • Dichen Lachman
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Wes BallJosh FriedmanRick JaffaAmanda SilverFreya AllanKevin DurandDichen LachmanActionAdventureSci-Fi

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