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Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (12A)

Director: Wes Ball
Screenplay: Josh Friedman, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver

Starring: Owen Teague, Eka Darville, Travis Jeffery

Running time: 145 minutes

Cinema release

Review: David Stephens

It’s funny how some franchises manage to autocorrect their paths, whilst others hurtle off the road into a reputational ravine. The Planet of the Apes series has surprisingly remained in a critical and financial sweet-spot, well after the horrendous remake helmed by Tim Burton in 2001 threatened to sink it forever. Since then, the excellent trilogy of Rise/Dawn/War from directors Robert Wyatt and Matt Reeves, established a grimly believable pandemic-based Armageddon for humankind (which is also why we still class them as sideways genre and a great excuse to cover them). From 2011 to 2017, the three films took us on an intense personal where Caesar (a peerless mo-cap performance from Andy Serkis), endeavoured to lead an increasingly intelligent monkeykind into a positive future, whereas humans biologically devolved into… well, even bigger dumbasses then they originally were. War ended with Caesar dying after securing the safety of his family and colony with homo sapiens starting to become feral and … err … intellectually challenged due to the Simian Flu mutating. It seemed a fitting end to the trilogy and a hairs-breadth away from the planet as Charlton Heston found it back in the OG classic. So, some were surprised at the production of this new entry, which has been directed by Wes Ball (The Maze Runner). Is this a magic kingdom or not?


There’s a neat prologue with the body of Caesar being cremated as his followers honour his memory. After a quick title reveal, it jumps to “several generations later” (actually 300 years) after this pivotal moment. A peaceful chimpanzee colony known as the Eagle Clan has established itself in a valley, with a simple lifestyle where they live in symbiotic harmony with tamed horses and (surprise!) eagles. Noa (Owen Teague) is the son of the tribal leader and is finding it challenging to live up to his father’s ideals and reputation. When a coming-of-age ritual is disrupted by an “echo” (their name for human scavengers, who are seen as simply annoying but mindless vermin), he leaves the camp to make it right. Unfortunately, this attracts the attention of an outsider group of violent and masked apes who immediately destroy the camp and take prisoners. Enraged, Noa attempts to find the base of the unknown apes and rescue his people. Along the way, he meets Roka (Peter Macon) an orangutan who continues to follow the teachings of Caesar, which have been lost to most of ape-kind. An unusually intelligent human (Freya Allen from The Witcher) is also encountered, who Roka calls “Nova” (“It meant something to Caesar, so we call them that”).

However, all roads lead to Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), a simian dictator who has dangerous ambitions.


Kingdom is good. It has an inherent quality to it that rivals the great stuff achieved in the previous trilogy. The CG is nearly faultless and pretty much photo-realistic, with only one or two scenes of hyper-movement which doesn’t quite convince. Otherwise, show this to someone who doesn’t know any better, and they would swear that chimps, orangutans, and gorillas have graduated from RADA. But then we’ve all become so blasé about lifelike CG FX that most people wouldn’t expect otherwise. Although Serkis is not present here (is there any reason why he couldn’t have donned the mo-cap suit again to play a descendant? Just a thought.), luckily the humans-in-CG-suits bring strong characteristics to each of the protagonists and antagonists. Teague, Macon, and Durland in particular are splendid in the form of their computer counterparts. Durand is charming, dangerous, and compelling as the King Louie-wannabee, snatching human tech and getting education from an unexpected source. Macon is also good, but it’s Teague’s Noa who really convinces with silent emoting and very human-like emotions being captured on a realistic simian canvas.


So that’s the “hard part” dealt with, but truth be told, Kingdom doesn’t quite hit the heights that the preceding and beloved trilogy managed to scale. There’s less of a sense of grandeur and purpose about the simplistic plot. It’s all about Noa’s reactionary journey, with the usual pieces of social commentary woven into it. Obvious points are made about how noble ideals and principles can get lost or perverted as time passes. Roka’s role as a member of the Order of Caesar is a fun nod to that. But whereas the world changed dramatically during the arc of Rise/Dawn/War and destinies were changed, it doesn’t feel the case here. Sure, there are some suitably epic/creepy shots of overgrown airports and football stadiums, which have become hardy tropes in apocalyptic video games, as well as films and TV shows. But as likeable and genuine as Noa is, he doesn’t come across with the same conviction and stature as the original Caesar. That iconic protagonist changed the future and did so with integrity. It’s early days (especially as it has been all but confirmed that this is the start of a new trilogy), but Noa doesn’t have that gravitas… yet.


It's also a little surprising that “Nova” isn’t given a larger part to play. Allen is actually very good in the role, and if they reboot Tomb Raider (yet again), she’s a definite candidate for Lara Croft. But she only enters the game about halfway through, even when (no spoilers!!) she has some decent relevance. The relationship between her and Noa is crafted well, touching on the duplicitous nature of humans and keeping her motives ambiguous. It would have been nice to have seen more work on this though. Otherwise, there is a fun and unexpected cameo (if you’ve avoided spoilers) from a well-known character actor and there’s a nice bit of humour in a largely serious experience, where the word “Shit!” is culturally appropriated by Noa. As well as “Nova’s” name, as per the other films, expect some nicely judged callbacks to previous “Ape” entries. There’s a superbly reimagined version of the human hunt from the 1968 film, the sinister crucifix “scarecrows” make a comeback, and an underground location seemingly references the setting of 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes. The militaristic gorilla who leads the army (Eka Darville as Sylva) seems to be an updated version of General Urko from the TV series.  Fun stuff for those who remember or have rewatched them recently.  


If any of that sounds somewhat negative, then it shouldn’t be counted as such. Yes, the issue of most of the apes looking identical, making some sequences hard to follow still stands, as it did with the previous films. It’s also a little too long in running time with occasional pacing issues. But this is still majestic stuff otherwise and you can’t argue with the overall quality of it. It has an admirable truthfulness to it, as well as some heart and decency that makes Avatar and its ilk look like Bluey in comparison. Humans were (and are) shitty, but other species will still screw it up as well. Even eagles can be assholes (it makes sense in the film). If it doesn’t quite have the same impact, Wes Ball’s continuation is certainly no embarrassment, and it is well worth recommending and seeing on a big screen. After a neat final confrontation, the last coda holds some clues to an intriguing direction that may see future films reference the forgotten sequels from 1972 and 1973. At any rate, it’s superior entertainment that proves there’s life in the old monkey yet.    

It’s good, but it’s not as great as the previous entries. It lacks a little bit of scope and direction. Having said that, it’s still marvellous in parts, has exciting sequences, superb CG acting, and contains more heart, honesty, and relevance than most ongoing sci-fi fantasy series. Monkey see? Monkey do!
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