The Planet of the Apes Franchise Has Become the Exception to the Reboot Rule

In a sea of lifeless IP cash grabs, the apes have offered an unexpected lifeboat.

Noa in 'Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes'
20th Century Studios

It's no secret that Hollywood's biggest studios have become increasingly reliant on pre-existing properties. The industry’s never been shy about repetition, but we’ve seen more sequels, prequels, and reboots come out of Hollywood over the past 20 years than ever before. As a result, plenty of franchises have gone on well past their expiration dates and begun to bore viewers. One of the few rebooted franchises to avoid that fate is the Planet of the Apes.

In 2011, the classic series was given new life with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the first installment in a trilogy that ended with 2017's War for the Planet of the Apes. All three of the trilogy’s installments were received well by critics and moviegoers alike, and now Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, which jumps into the future, is set to hit theaters this week.

The absence of key creative players like Matt Reeves and Andy Serkis has caused some fans to approach Kingdom with a bit of hesitation, but the buzz surrounding it has generally been very positive. The same can't be said for many of the big-budget sequels and prequels that have hit theaters in recent years, but the Apes franchise has done what many of Hollywood's other long-running series haven't: put characters first.

The Planet of the Apes reboot found a compelling protagonist in Andy Serkis’ Caesar. Can it do that again?

20th Century Fox

In 2011, no one quite knew what to expect from Rise of the Planet of the Apes. What few could have predicted is that it would turn out to be as much a character study as a thriller, one that immerses you so fully in the life and experiences of its protagonist, Caesar (Andy Serkis), that you don't mind watching him eventually outsmart his human captors and lead his fellow intelligent apes to revolution.

Both Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes adopt the same unerring focus on Caesar's story. Dawn opens and ends with close-up shots of Caesar's eyes, and in-between it tells a story in which his desperate attempts to maintain peace between Earth's remaining humans and its intelligent apes are thwarted by the intense prejudices carried by members of both groups. It's a film that roots its story of impending war in its protagonist's fear of it, and that adds a layer of constant tension that’s frequently startling.

War for the Planet of the Apes fulfills Dawn’s dark promises and proves just how well-placed Caesar's fear was. It's a brutal, often shockingly bleak movie, but its hold on you wouldn't be nearly so vicelike if you didn't feel the same hopelessness, guilt, and anger as Caesar. For as epic as these movies are, they never stray too far from their protagonist's perspective. The action sequences never take precedence over Caesar's story, so viewers always remain attached to him.

The recent Planet of the Apes movies show how to breathe new life into an aged franchise.

20th Century Fox

Rather than prioritizing cheap Easter eggs, set pieces, and callbacks, the modern Apes trilogy put their characters, including Caesar and his two biggest adversaries, Koba (Toby Kebbell) and the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), first. In doing so, they give viewers a story to get invested in that doesn’t rely on cheap nostalgia or dime-a-dozen spectacle. Nothing about the franchise's past three installments feels stale or overly familiar, because the characters at their center don't feel that way.

It's unclear if Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes will follow in its predecessors' footsteps, but early trailers have placed a spotlight on its young ape protagonist, Noa (Owen Teague), so there's reason to be optimistic. Either way, it's worth celebrating just how well the Planet of the Apes series has managed to avoid the same pitfalls that so many of its fellow Hollywood franchises have stumbled into. It’s nearly 60 years old, but we're still looking forward to its latest chapter. That's an achievement in and of itself.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes hits theaters on Friday, May 10.

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