Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes Retrieves Franchise from Prequel Loop Trap

Kingdom Of The Planet Of The Apes looks like a wormhole into Fox's past. The original Planet Of The Apes movies helped to establish Fox as a home for sci-fi, predating even their distribution of the Star Wars movies. It made sense, then, that in the wake of Star Wars, Alien, Predator, and various James Cameron projects, the studio would want to revive the franchise. Various actors and filmmakers shuffled on and off various Planet Of The Apes projects for years, stalling out off and eventually on screen: Tim Burton's 2001 redo made a ton of money but didn't satisfy audiences enough to justify a sequel.

A decade later, however, Fox brought the property back from the brink, and that rebooted series is now four movies in, with a fifth seeming likely, and the possibility of surpassing the original movies in sight. (In terms of numbers, anyway.) With Kingdom Of The Planet Of The Apes, the first entry under Disney's reign, the apes now wander the ruined post-apocalyptic remains of their parent company. Though it's comforting to see a form of Fox still making Aliens and Predators and Apes, it's hard to say whether this counts as a victory. Certainly Kingdom Of The Apes is a lavish spectacle, mixing some seemingly real locations with a cast made up primarily of motion-capture animated characters so convincing you may forget to drop your jaw over the course of 150 minutes.

It's a long way, in other words, from Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, the 2011 movie that restarted the series without its best-known twist. At the close of the 1968 original, Charlton Helton's astronaut character discovers that he hasn't crash-landed on a distant planet, but rather Earth in the distant future, after mankind has wrecked things up real good, ensuring their replacement by super-intelligent primates. (Not to be outdone, the movie's somehow-G-rated sequel manages to wreck the planet even more.) Kingdom even addresses some of that uncomfortable push-pull—the way the humans' gradual social loss to the apes nags at them as unnatural, as somehow unfair.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes takes humankind from what looks like our world to what looks like, well, our world a decade later—on the brink of pandemic disaster—over the course of a compact running time, all while developing Caesar and several of his ape compatriots as (mostly) non-speaking characters. Wyatt still finds time for stylish touches, like how the fakeness of Caesar's ape-shelter habitat feels reminiscent of a movie soundstage, providing an extra burst of exhilaration when Caesar busts out through the rooftop into the nighttime. Rather than turning Planet Of The Apes chintzily "realistic," the movie uses that kinda-sorta realism to make its leaps feel weightier and more momentous. When Caesar makes his first guttural cry of "NO!"—a much-referred-to event from the earlier series—it's still a chill-inducing moment, even after so many sequels where Caesar and other apes chat at length.

Continuing the X-Men parallels, the immediate Apes sequels, stately and handsome as they are under the direction of Matt Reeves, have a little trouble recapturing that momentum, and sometimes threaten to sink under their own weighty tastefulness. (OK, the tastefulness part is not really part of the deal, but that first X-Movie has a charm that sometimes eludes its more impressive sequels.) Their use of Fox's beloved Canadian Forest locations is evocative, sure—more like the moody The Wolverine than the wandering-around X-Men: The Last Stand—but it's not as much fun as watching apes turn San Francisco into an impromptu battleground. The older series may have faced diminished budgets as they went on; the third one saves money (and avoids a seemingly dead end to the previous installment) by importing a few apes to contemporaneous San Francisco. But Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes, for example, takes place in a distant science-fiction society despite the corners cut on makeup and effects. Kingdom, the new post-Reeves installment, gets a little closer to that otherworldliness, and with CG that hasn't diminished in quality—but it's still lots of fields and trees.