Things change. Sometimes it’s slow, other times it’s terrifyingly fast. Movies are no different. As a member of Generation X, the forgotten generation, my experience growing up was that seeing movies theatrically was a central part of the cultural conversation. At school, we’d chatter excitedly about Ghostbusters. The standard-issue date involved dinner and a movie. Hell, my first date with my wife involved meeting at a movie theater to see Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead.*

But things change. Fewer people are interested in seeing movies theatrically. In fact, fewer people are interested in seeing movies at all. So how do you change that? Well, you have to recognize the fundamental paradox around audiences, which is they say they want something different, then when they’re given something different, they don’t show up for it. For many franchises, that would be an impossibility. Not for the Planet of the Apes franchise. 

Most filmgoers are vaguely aware of the franchise, and have a mental image of people in weird ape masks riding horses with rifles. Those were the films of the 1960s-1970s. Tim Burton made a very bad remake in 2001. But in 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes kicked off a trilogy created with considerable skill and intelligence. Now we have Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, the beginning of a new trilogy that pushes the franchise forward in a compelling new direction.

Everyone agrees that Caesar was a great ape in both senses of the phrase. When the virus came forth that enhanced the intelligence of primates, and decreased the intelligence of humans, Caesar was the one to lead apes forward. He understood the folly of humanity, and as an elder, he was determined not to make their mistakes. 

That was generations ago. Caesar has long gone to his reward, and a new world flourishes. There are very few humans left, and what humans there are seem to exist in a feral state. The apes are dominant as they build a new world. Some of them are part of the Eagle Clan, a group that lives in harmony with raptors. We’re introduced to the young adult chimpanzees Noa (Owen Teague), Soona (Lydia Peckham), and Anaya (Travis Jeffery), on the hunt for eagle eggs. They climb dizzying heights in order to bond with the newborn birds once they’re hatched.

The problems begin that night when Noa discovers he’s being followed by Mae (Freya Allan), a mysterious human. She accidentally destroys Noa’s eagle egg. This is an issue, since Noa’s father Koro (Neil Sandilands) is a respected clan leader and raiser of eagles. Noa craves his father’s respect, so off he goes in the middle of the night to claim another egg. That decision kicks off a fateful journey, beginning with an attack on the village led by Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), a violent Bonobo warlord who dreams of conquest.

Proximus kills Koro, burns the village to the ground, and enslaves the Eagle Clan. Noa escapes, and embarks on a journey to free his clan. Along the way he’ll encounter Raka (Peter Macon), an orangutan historian well-versed in the original teachings of Caesar. Noa also will learn the truth about the human Mae, and the truth about how apes today interpret Caesar’s legacy, both for good and ill.

I’m not amazed that Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is a) the tenth film in the Apes franchise, b) a direct sequel to the reboot prequel, and c) the beginning of a new trilogy. I’ve made my peace regarding Hollywood’s desire to not only beat a dead horse, but nuke said horse from orbit. The amazing thing is that, somehow, this film is made with a high degree of skill, just like the previous three films. I have no idea how this happened. Both my fingers and toes are firmly crossed that this trend continues.

Director Wes Ball has made a strong sci-fi adventure that effectively balances cutting edge CGI with strong characterization. The effects work is amazing, to be sure, and while I knew I was watching actors performing with motion-capture technology, I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching an evolved version of apes. The set pieces and world building are just as solid, and Ball takes the time to introduce us to a world that’s vividly populated, where the set pieces push forward story and themes as well as being thrillingly realized. For example, watch the initial scenes where Noa climbs high for an eagle egg. Ball goes beyond creating a fast paced sequence with clever reversals. He also shows us who Noa is and why he goes to such intense risks to nab a single egg. That’s what great filmmaking is all about.

I couldn’t connect with James Cameron’s Avatar, because as stunningly rendered as those films are, the character elements always felt flat to me. Kingdom succeeds where Avatar fails, due to the clever screenplay by Josh Friedman. At its core, this is a coming of age story. Friedman shows us a young ape who wants to make his father proud. What Noa needs is very different, and the screenplay mainly uses his actions to show us how he grows and who he ultimately becomes. This being a Planet of the Apes film, there are some callbacks to earlier entries in the franchise. The fan wankery is always kept light, and when I thought, “Oh, that must be important,” those moments are only lightly touched upon. Also, this being a Planet of the Apes film, the script digs into meaty thematic questions. It asks if humans and apes can get along,  if the mistakes of the past are destined to be repeated, and if they can build upon the vast lessons the apes learn from people.

Except for Freya Allen as Mae and William H. Macy as an opportunist teaching human history to Proximus, virtually all of the actors perform utilizing motion capture. As a result, they need to rely on body language in order to present the emotion of the characters. It seems that these performers took a lesson from Andy Serkis’ work** in the previous trilogy. As Noa, Owen Teague carries himself with the hesitance of a teen trying to find his place in the world. He’s forced to make choices that transform him into an ape that’s needed, as opposed to the ape he wanted to become. Noa isn’t the revolutionary that Caesar was, nor the Moses Caesar became. He could be a leader, but a different kind, one who doesn’t cover himself in the philosophy of a long dead ape.

Things change. Nowhere is that more true in the evolution of the Apes franchise than with Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes. If you’re looking for smart science fiction that prioritizes ideas alongside effects, and that offers a big screen adventure with small screen characterization, you’ll find it with this film. I’d bet my last banana on it. 


*I’m also amazed there was a second date.

**Serkis’ acting was so strong in those films, I genuinely think he should have gotten an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.