Review: ‘Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes’ monkeys with a durable sci-fi concept, to smart ends

Two apes and a woman go on an adventure.
From left, Owen Teague, Freya Allan and Peter Macon in the movie “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.”
(20th Century Studios)

Since Charlton Heston first gazed upon the remnants of the Statue of Liberty on a sandy beach 56 years ago, the “Planet of the Apes” movies have remained popular. Their appeal is the opportunity to explore complex characters and social issues within the franchise’s allegorical representation of our world. They’re not escapism, but reflection.

The best “Apes” movies offer insight into ourselves and the world that we’ve created, and so does the latest installment, “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” the 10th in the series, which manages to encompass everything we love about these movies into one sprawling story.

After the franchise ran its course in the 1970s and with the 2001 Tim Burton one-off, screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver nailed a reboot in 2011 with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Directed by Rupert Wyatt, the film featured the story of Caesar, an intelligent ape who leads an uprising, a callback to the 1972 installment “The Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.” Embodied by Andy Serkis in a truly remarkable motion-capture performance and created digitally by the artists at the New Zealand-based Wētā FX, the memorable Caesar was beloved by audiences, especially as his story deepened over the course of two sequels, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “War for the Planet of the Apes,” both directed by Matt Reeves.


Now, in a film set hundreds of years after the events of “War,” “Kingdom” feels like both a reboot and a sequel, and an opportunity to set off a new cycle for the 2020s. Director Wes Ball, who previously helmed the surprisingly great “Maze Runner” movies, proves a worthy successor to what Reeves cemented for the franchise, delivering a character-driven story that wrestles with issues of equality, morality and diplomacy, punctuated by intense action sequences.

An ape wearing a crown is power-hungry.
Kevin Durand in the movie “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.”
(20th Century Studios)

On this ape planet, the human population has been decimated and rendered dumb by the same virus that made apes intelligent and capable of speech. Our hero is the young Noa, (a terrific Owen Teague), an adolescent ape from the Eagle clan, who live in harmony with nature, training large golden eagles. Noa’s dreams of becoming an eagle master like his father are dashed when his village comes under attack by a gang of masked apes armed with cattle prods. Left for dead, Noa sets off alone in the hope of rescuing his loved ones.

It’s a classic hero’s journey as the young naïf leaves home and learns the harsh truth about the world. He connects with a guide along the way, Raka (Peter Macon, a scene-stealer), a wise orangutan who teaches him the legend of Caesar and a message of unity among apes. When a feral human girl (Freya Allan) tags along, Raka encourages Noa to show her compassion — she’s just a dumb human after all.

The trio achieves a fragile unity based on Caesar’s teachings, but are soon ripped apart after they are captured and taken to the coastal compound of Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), a power-hungry cult leader who has twisted Caesar’s words into violence and manipulation.

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As he proved with “Maze Runner,” Ball has a knack for rendering a kind of stylish, youthful dystopia, and the point of view and aesthetic of “Kingdom” speaks to that. Written by Josh Friedman, this is a story about a young leader shaken from his nest and taught about the way the world works in cruel ways. The sheer scope of the storytelling and the sophisticated world-building is awe-inspiring on the big screen. The remnants of human civilization are overgrown with verdant greenery, presenting our own lost world in a new way. At the chaotic ape colony on the beach, rusting hulks of massive ships loom out of blue waters, contrasting with red sails and white sand. There is beauty among the terror and an element of anxious unpredictability thrashing our characters like the waves that crash against the cliffs.


But the deft spectacle would be nothing without the characters and performances. The film kicks into gear with the introduction of the winning Raka and escalates with Proximus Caesar’s swaggering entrance as a charismatic preacher who has twisted a messiah’s words into hate. But Noa is the heart of the film, his clear green eyes rendered with such emotion by the artisans at Wētā, conveying hope, horror, betrayal and ultimately acceptance.

Ball and Friedman’s ambitious storytelling is a bit overstuffed, offering a plethora of different issues with which to tangle: anti-gun messaging, religious metaphors, questions about our relationship to technology, individual rights. But they set up an exciting world centered around a new ape for us to believe in, at least for this moment.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

'Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes'

Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence/action

Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes

Playing: In wide release Friday, May 10