The recent Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy fizzled out by its third installment, as any form of social allegory it carried over from the original franchise had all but disappeared, with Matt Reeves’ War completing the saga’s slow transition into generic dystopian survival epic. Because the recent Fox-Disney merger has ensured that the only movies getting produced and released theatrically under the former studio’s new ownership are tied to familiar brand names, we’re returning to this post-apocalyptic Earth 300 years after the death of Andy Serkis’ Caesar for what is being tipped as the start of a new trilogy, bridging the gap between recent reboots and the original Charlton Heston vehicle. Surprisingly, for a project that was likely greenlit for non-creative reasons, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes has surprisingly lofty aims, aiming to unpack the legacy of an ape-led revolution many generations later, when sharp divides have arisen between those who believe the facts, and those who choose to invest in a more fantastical legend.

It’s as unsubtly handled as you’d expect from a would-be four-quadrant blockbuster, which makes it even more of an admirable risk; when was the last time a studio tentpole dared to alienate religious audiences with a feature-length parable on the dangers of blind, unquestioning idol worship? It makes for an invigorating final hour, which never loses track of its allegory even as focus switches more fully to ratcheting up the intensity of the expected action set pieces. The question that lingers afterwards, however, is whether this is a case of too little, too late. Director Wes Ball and screenwriter Josh Friedman spend the best part of 90 minutes on a drawn-out quest narrative that needlessly wastes time re-establishing this world, feeling like a continuation of the generic dystopias Reeves and Co. offered by the close of the franchise’s prior iteration. When we finally arrive at the self-contained kingdom of the title, the story finally kicks into gear, but it remains to be seen as to whether audience patience will have been worn too thin by what should have been a quick, scene-setting prologue to care.

Caesar’s motto was “Apes together strong,” but a few centuries later, that couldn’t be further from the truth, with apes divided into different clans who have interpreted his philosophies in dramatically different ways. The self-appointed strongman king Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand) is leading his army across the country to capture and enslave any communities who stand in opposition to him. One of those is the home of young Noa (Owen Teague), who narrowly escapes this fate, but must embark on a cross-country journey to find and rescue his family, making unexpected allies––both human and otherwise––along the way.

If that synopsis sounds like another case of a post-Logan blockbuster straining to be considered a “secret western,” well, nothing in Ball’s film wants to dissuade you from that notion, coasting on familiar iconography for most of the first half. The first time we saw the CGI apes on horseback in Reeves’ prequels, it was an evocative image, but the stunning simplicity of this visual is diluted by overuse here, coupled with a score by John Paesano that infrequently ushers in twangy guitar strums that make its genre ambitions not just nakedly apparent, but embarrassing. Kingdom was largely shot on location in Australia, but the beauty of each setting in this stretch is diluted by the lack of specificity in the decaying, moss-laden cityscapes created digitally in the background. Perhaps its lazy attempts to emulate western formulas would be easier to forgive if the locations felt every bit as tactile as they are within that genre. At times, it feels like the filmmakers are restraining themselves from recreating familiar landmarks as dystopian ruins, something that would have added some distinction to the otherwise bland succession of landscapes throughout their journey––did Ball forget that part of the reason the original movie was so iconic was because of how it weaponized a world-famous landmark?

As Noa teams up with the mute human Mae (Freya Allan)––referred to by the apes exclusively as Nova––and orangutan Raka (Peter Macon), the screenplay has a tendency to tell and not show, leaning too hard on exposition to outline the various divisions that have arisen in ape society in the intervening centuries. The original series explored concepts such as nuclear war and racial divisions in increasingly outlandish ways, whereas here the clash of different ape civilizations is largely relegated to extended lore explainers, or brief glimpses of the villain and his allies in all-too-brief siege sequences. In the second half, it becomes clear that the lack of impact in how the movie explores its themes is entirely due to keeping the chief villain at arm’s length for extended periods; why waste time having characters discuss the warped legacy of Caesar, when a quick glimpse at the ape who wants to be his spiritual heir gets the job done much quicker? Proximus Caesar isn’t exactly a unique villain, nor is he written in a way that justifies other characters filling in the blanks of his characterization, which makes the film’s eagerness to prolong his full appearance in the narrative in order to properly contextualize his motivations all the more frustrating.

This could be due to studio tinkering, attempting to acclimatize an audience to themes which could be interpreted as skeptical of religion, so a villain with a violent cult of personality built around him doesn’t cut too close to the bone when he does show up. And yet, in spite of everything in the hour-plus that precedes it, none of this matters when we finally get to his kingdom, the movie finally delivering on the simple sci-fi culture-clash allegory and the spectacle set pieces so notably absent before. It’s the ideal third act for a Planet of the Apes movie––whether you want to sit through an extensive, near-90 minute journey that represents everything wrong with dystopian world-building in contemporary blockbusters to get there, however, is up to you.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes opens on May 8.

Grade: C+

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