Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes Is An Old-School Epic Begging For A Sequel

The latest in the venerable Apes franchise delivers the goods — even if it feels like a very long set-up.

Inverse Reviews

For those hoping that the last moments of Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes would deliver a reality-bending twist, you might be slightly disappointed. For everyone else who is just looking forward to another installment that would continue with the same heartfelt sci-fi character drama that made the last three films solid, then there’s good news. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is a surprisingly sweet epic, with almost zero plot holes, other than, perhaps, a stubborn refusal to answer the biggest question everyone might have.

If you want to know why things are the way they are in this world, Kingdom is not here to hold your paw. Instead, it continues the same thought experiment that the 2014 sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes began: What if you made a sci-fi movie that was mostly not about humans? On that level, as a standalone movie, Kingdom succeeds. But as a franchise builder? As part of the Apes franchise? Well, let’s just say there’s a little bit of monkey business to discuss.

The fellowship of the apes.

20th Century Studios

Set “several generations” after War for the Planet of the Apes, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is firmly a story about Noa (Owen Teague), a young ape part of a clan of apes who train eagles for reasons that almost exclusively exist to set the plot of the movie motion, and, interestingly, also resolve everything by the end. It’s not called Planet of the Apes Who Train Eagles, but it kind of should be.

Directed by Wes Ball, with a screenplay from Josh Friedman, the plot rule this script seems to follow is twofold: If you think someone is going to die, you’re probably right, and nearly every object in the film is a kind of Chekov’s gun — it will go off at some point, and the story will revolve around that thing being planted earlier. At the beginning of the movie, Noa can’t get the eagles to come to him like his father can. Keep that one in mind. The film opens with Noa and his friends going on a dangerous climb. That might matter later! Mae (Freya Allan) says she needs a specific object that can save humans. Will she find it? (Yes.)

Most of Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes feels like a build-up to a movie we don’t see.

20th Century Studios

Structurally, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is a quest movie, at least for a little while. After his peaceful village is ransacked by bad apes called “Masks,” Noa goes on a quest to recover his remaining family and restore peace and justice to the ape world. Along the way, he picks up a kooky, philosophical ape named Raka, who, as voiced by Peter Macon, basically steals the entire movie. He’s criminally funny, and Kingdom plays the gag that apes think humans are really dumb until the joke stops being funny and then abruptly moves on. With Raka, Kingdom is a masterclass in how to inject genuinely warm humor and wit into your weird sci-fi epic: Tell the same innocent joke 12 different ways.

When Noa, Raka, and a human outcast named Mae are all teamed up, the movie is definitely at its most satisfying and best. There’s one chase scene on horseback that is utterly thrilling, even if you’ve felt all these story beats before. Funnily enough, Kingdom knows this trio can’t stick together for the whole movie, breaking the fellowship of two apes and one human a bit earlier than you might be ready for. This is one of the strengths of the film; just when you’re worried it's going to drag on a particular idea, theme, or even setting, the movie jolts forward, even if it is showing its artificial plot armature in the process.

Raka is just too good for this world.

20th Century Studios

In the end, the quest movie gives way to a “team-up to kill the bad guy” movie, which shouldn’t really work, but does mostly through an aggressive amount of charm. In some scenes it feels like you’re watching an old-school historical epic like Spartacus, but with talking monkeys. One scene in this climax has a very Shakespearean tragedy feeling, but, crucially, upbeat. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is not as dark as War for the Planet of the Apes, and it’s also not as downbeat as any of the original films either. The most radical thing about this Apes movie is that, unlike the critical and cynical tone of the first four classic films, this one is optimistic. In fact, the entire Apes franchise probably hasn’t been this optimistic since the ending of Battle for the Planet of the Apes in 1973.

All that said, the heart of the story feels like it ends a bit early, which leads to a protracted coda that both does and doesn’t entirely work. This is where Kingdom feels like two movies in one. The first movie, a standalone story told in a future-tense version of the three previous films, is a good movie. Not great, but solid. The second movie — which leads us all to ask questions about what has happened in the time gap — is perhaps an overly long prelude to something else; a hypothetical sequel. And it's in that table-setting for a sequel, that you have to wonder if this movie will be remembered as just a prelude, the same way Rise of the Planet of the Apes is now seen as the movie that allowed the next two — Dawn and War — to be so awesome.

And that’s probably the worst, and best, thing you can say about Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes: It tells a compelling story, but on some level, it feels like that story is just getting started.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is out in wide release on May 10.

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