Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes review: a great, thoughtful sci-fi sequel

Noa stares ahead solemnly in Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

“Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is a worthy addition to one of Hollywood’s best franchises.”

Pros

  • Owen Teague’s nuanced lead performance as Noa
  • Stunning cinematography and VFX throughout
  • A script that feels both introspective and epic

Cons

  • Pacing problems throughout its second act
  • An overlong runtime
  • A few superfluous supporting characters

Of all the many reboots and sequels that Hollywood has produced over the past 20 years, the most recent Planet of the Apes films have been among the most transportive and considered. In 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes rebooted the well-known sci-fi series by turning its focus to Caesar, the leader of the franchise’s central ape rebellion. Brought to life via performance capture technology by Andy Serkis, Caesar emerged as one of the Planet of the Apes series’ greatest creations: an independent, intelligent character whose conflicting affection for the humans who raised him and loyalty to his fellow primates elevated the wars he found himself in to emotionally profound heights.

The Batman director Matt Reeves followed up Caesar’s introduction in Rise with a pair of somber, artful sequels in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes, the latter of which brought the story of Serkis’ determined revolutionary to a suitably bittersweet end. Seven years later, the franchise has returned with Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, a sequel to War made without the active involvement of Serkis, Reeves, or Rise director Rupert Wyatt. Fortunately, while the franchise has lost a lot of the key players responsible for its past three installments, its contemporary track record remains unblemished. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is a deeply satisfying sequel that neither ignores the lessons of the acclaimed films that came before it, nor feels too reliant on them.

Noa and Raka sit near a campfire together in Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.
20th Century Studios

Following a brief prologue that effectively bridges its story to the ending of its 2017 predecessor, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes flashes forward many years after Caesar’s death. The apes’ takeover of Earth is complete. The few humans that remain either roam listlessly as half-naked Neanderthals or try to avoid being hunted and captured, while Caesar’s ape descendants are divided into different clans that follow different beliefs and customs. Noa (Owen Teague), the film’s young chimpanzee protagonist, is a member of a peaceful, isolationist clan that measures its inhabitants’ maturity by their ability to catch and raise an eagle companion. Noa is, like all teenagers, both desperate to prove himself to his elders and also painfully unaware of what dangers truly lie beyond the edges of his small world.

His blissfully ignorant youth is brought to a fiery end when several members of an ape clan led by the power-hungry Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand) sack his home and kidnap nearly every one of his fellow villagers. Determined to save his friends and family members, Noa sets out to bring them back home, and he quickly finds himself joined by Raka (Peter Macon), an academic orangutan who’s well-versed in Caesar’s beliefs, and Mae (Freya Allan), a resourceful human who is smarter than she lets on. As the three team up to bring Proximus and his followers to justice, Noa begins to question who he can trust, as well as his own instincts.

Noa’s arc throughout Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes shares more than a few similarities with Caesar’s in Rise. Like Serkis, though, Teague brings enough nuance and emotional complexity to his performance that you forgive the basic structure of his character’s journey. Kingdom is a film rich with details — from the small vestiges left of its pre-apocalyptic world to the coastal design of Proximus Caesar’s fortress — but few carry as much weight as the small shifts in posture that come as Noa begins to reach new levels of both confidence and disillusionment. Teague’s performance is one to marvel at, and it’s easy to do so, thanks to Kingdom‘s character-first approach to its story.

Proximus Caesar grins in Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.
20th Century Studios

The film’s script, penned by Josh Friedman, takes its time. There are, in fact, sections of it that likely could have been trimmed and sped up, such as the first few days Noa spends exploring the region outside of his clan’s home valley. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is, however, a proper epic, and while its 145-minute runtime is inarguably bloated in places, it’s refreshing to see a blockbuster of its size show so much investment in even the smallest moments of its characters’ stories. Noa’s relationship with Mae, in particular, evolves at such a measured pace that the levels of both trust and distrust that grow between them not only feel earned, but also just as thorny and compellingly ambiguous as they should.

Visually, Kingdom lacks the refined, methodical style that Reeves brought to Dawn and War. In its place, director Wes Ball has opted for a more fluid, handheld aesthetic that greatly emphasizes the beauty of the film’s colorful environments. There are moments when it feels like Kingdom could have benefitted from a slightly steadier and more authorial directorial hand, but Ball is so locked in on the characters and emotions at the heart of the film’s story that you never feel like he’s in danger of losing control of it. The movie, consequently, isn’t quite as powerful of an artistic and stylistic statement as its Reeves-directed predecessors, but it’s no less engaging or narratively thoughtful than those films.

Mae stands on a beach in Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.
20th Century Studios

The sequel was clearly made with the same considerations in mind as its franchise’s other, post-reboot titles, which is to say that it never lets the spectacle of its filmmaking or the inherent goofiness of its premise distract from its characters or its story’s emotional beats. Is that why the past few Planet of the Apes films have been so much better than most of the other franchise movies and TV shows that have been made over the past 15 years? It almost certainly has something to do with it, but one also doesn’t have to look any further than the opening minutes of Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes to discover the most important ingredient to the film’s — and, therefore, its franchise’s — success.

As the movie’s initial, soaring shots of its overgrown, lush postapocalyptic landscapes wash over you, one can immediately sense the dedication and hard work that went into creating every one of its frames. It’s a rare thing — seeing a modern, VFX-heavy blockbuster that doesn’t look ugly or feel lazily put together. There’s a real, earnest passion coursing through Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes that makes it ludicrously easy to get lost in its world and — even more impressively — leaves one eager to return to it.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is now playing in theaters.

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