Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

More than half a century after the first film, Hollywood's paws are still on this sci-fi franchise — and this is a thoughtful and engaging new instalment.
Sarah Ward
Published on May 09, 2024


Move over New York — it's time for New South Wales to be overrun by a simian civilisation. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes doesn't swap the Statue of Liberty for the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Rather, it was just made in Australia; this franchise is long past needing to anchor itself in a specific location, but America's west coast is the in-narrative setting. No it-was-earth-all-along twists are necessary, either, as France's famous gift to the US signalled back in 1968 when Pierre Boulle's novel La Planète des singes initially made it to the screen. More than half a century later — plus four sequels to the OG Planet of the Apes, both live-action and animated TV shows, Tim Burton's (Wednesday) remake and the reboot flicks that started with 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes — the saga's basics are widely known in pop culture. The titular planet is humanity's own. In this vision of the future, a different kind of primate runs the show.

Since day one, every Planet of the Apes tale has been a mirror. Gazing into the science-fiction series means seeing the power structures and societal struggles of our reality staring back — discrimination, authoritarianism and even the impact of a world-ravaging virus should ring a bell— but with humans no longer atop the pecking order. These are allegorical stories and, at their best, thoughtful ones, probing the responsibilities of being the planet's dominant force and the ramifications of taking that mantle for granted. Not every instalment has handled the task as well as it should've, but those that do leave a paw print. Coming after not just Rise of the Planet of the Apes but also 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and 2017's War for the Planet of the Apes, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes falls into that category.

First helmed by Rupert Wyatt (The Gambler), with Matt Reeves (The Batman) taking over for the second two titles, the most-recent Apes trilogy had Caesar (Andy Serkis, Andor) at its centre. Raised by humans before the simian flu devastated the population and evolved apekind, he spearheaded the latter's uprising. That said, Caesar also retained his compassion for homo sapiens, especially as he gleaned how the worst traits in all primates are the same no matter what they're covered in. His time has now been and gone in the franchise. Swapping from one dystopian saga to another, The Maze Runner, The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials and The Maze Runner: Death Cure director Wes Ball picks up briefly with a farewell to Caesar — but then, for the bulk of the picture, he takes Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes forward through many generations and several hundred years.

The influential figure's name is now revered, and his wisdom — but, like humans, apes mould the plights and teachings of historical leaders to suit their own agendas. To some, Caesar is the reason to treat people, or "echoes" as they've been dubbed after losing the ability to speak, with kindness, understanding what the species once was and how it has fallen. For others, particularly of the power-hungry variety, he's the justification for retaining control of the planet by violence and at all costs. But in the peaceful eagle clan, birds not long-ago commanders are the main focus. So, when adolescent Noa (Owen Teague, You Hurt My Feelings), his crush Soona (Cowboy Bebop) and pal Anaya (Travis Jeffery, Before Dawn) leap into the story early, they're collecting eggs to take home, nurture and then rear the hatchlings, one of their community's rites of passage.

In a narrative penned by Josh Friedman (Foundation) that nods eagerly to classic westerns, the pursuit of dominance at its most vicious at the hands of a warrior tribe taints young Noa's life quickly. Soon, everything that he knows is gone, sparking a hero's journey to rescue those among his loved ones that he can. When he crosses paths with orang-utan sage Raka (Peter Macon, The Orvill), he receives guidance, including about Caesar's pleas for ape unity. He's also counselled to tamper down his anger at and disdain for the feral human (Freya Allan, Baghead) shadowing his tracks, who he partly blames for his status quo turning to tragedy. Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand, Abigail), the ruler directing a monkey regime of carnage, only has eyes for as much authority and supremacy as he can amass — and so in him, the encampment that he's made where apes enslave apes and his staunchly anti-human ideology, Noa finds a threat.

Decades since dressing up actors in costumes to play the series' apes was the norm, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes doesn't just have thematic and emotional realism on its side — it's never been hard to spot the franchise's parallels with reality — but also the verisimilitude gifted by its motion-capture approach (with Wētā FX doing the honours). That's how Serkis inhabited his part, and how Teague and company (everyone except Allan and Ricky Stanicky's William H Macy from the top-billed cast, in fact) follow in his footsteps. Serkis was a special consultant on the production, aiding the actors with their simian performances; the feelings conveyed through their work as a result are deep and affecting. Whether Teague is charting Noa's coming-of-age arc away from blissful naivety, the scene-stealing Macon is making Raka's appeal for empathy resonate or Durand is commanding every second that he's in sight as the hubristic Proximus, their portrayals are rich and insightful.

Yes, you could call the performances that drive Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes' "human". Painted with pixels over the top, the film's digital fur looks so vivid that audiences can be forgiven for thinking they can touch it — and that combination of naturalistic, grounded and relatable portrayals with special effects that get viewers investing in the movie's animals as animals is potent and pivotal. In a saga that's always been committed to aping the state of the off-screen world, that reflective effect is essential. Ball and his team, cinematographer Gyula Pados (Shazam! Fury of the Gods, plus the last two Maze Runner flicks) among them, also do detail and world-building well, rendering the planet a mix of lush greenery and decaying human relics that equally appears as authentic as CGI can. Their biggest struggle: that there's so much to explore in this new Planet of the Apes beginning that not everything is told as gracefully and clearly as it could be, even across 145 minutes. As with almost everything that hits screens of late, this has been conceived as the catalyst for more to come — and it earns the enthusiasm to keep swinging.


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