Are the new Planet of the Apes movies going anywhere?

An orangutan, a chimp, and a human brace for battle in a still from Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.
Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes Disney/20th Century Studios / Disney/20th Century Studios

You have to hand it to the damn dirty humans behind the Planet of the Apes franchise: Somehow, those maniacs haven’t blown it up yet. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, now in theaters, is a diverting fallen-world adventure blessed with legible action, striking scenery, and motion-capture performances that put some genuine soul behind the simian eyes. Not bad for the third sequel to the second reboot of a 1960s sci-fi curiosity with four sequels of its own.

In general, this new era of Apes has been better than there was any reason to believe it would be. Launched in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the series has brought the premise of an Earth where supposed lower primates have become the dominant species into the 21st century with an unexpected degree of gravity; rather than aim for dumb fun (as Tim Burton’s 2001 remake did) or a winking camp appeal, the recent movies have taken the emotional journey of their IQ-enhanced title characters seriously. From an effects standpoint, they’ve also offered a best-case scenario, combining the expressive wonders of state-of-the-art CGI with location shooting that grounds the action in a physical space. Both the apes and their planet feel very real.

Still, as nu-Apes swings into its second era — we’re certain to see more, given the money Kingdom is making — it’s difficult to shake the feeling that these handsome, well-liked blockbusters are missing something. They’ve been made with care, with intelligence, with heart, but maybe not with a real sense of purpose. Though each new entry inches us forward in time — sometimes by a few years, most recently by a couple hundred — there’s a cyclicality to their conflicts, even a certain repetitiveness. What we’re watching, over and over again, is some variation on the same story of apes and humans clashing for control of an uncertain future. And if that underscores a larger allegorical portrait of human history (and its destructive tribalism) repeating itself, it’s resulted in a franchise that seems content running indefinitely in place.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes | Official International Trailer | 2011

Designed to function as both a reboot and a prequel of sorts, Rise set the apparent trajectory of the series, tracing the destabilization of the natural order to the defiance of a superintelligent chimpanzee named Caesar (the Marlon Brando of mo-cap, Andy Serkis). As the ground zero for an unusually grim Hollywood franchise about the decline of humanity, it got the job done with a little panache and pathos. Its smartest move was giving these perfunctory origin-story beats a personal dimension: the rise of a planet of the apes as the rise of one very smart, very righteous ape.

Yet, the films that followed didn’t so much progress the larger arc as reiterate its tensions. Realistically, the path from Rise’s evolutionary leap forward to the status quo of the original 1968 Planet of the Apes would be thousands of years long. But Caesar was so sympathetic that the architects of the franchise seemed reluctant to push past his life span, to abandon a character the audience instantly adored. That’s how we got two more Apes movies stalled in the relatively immediate aftermath of the previous one, a few decades of stalemate between us hairless primates and our hairy, closest genetic relatives.

Directed by Matt Reeves, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes are well-crafted, sometimes exciting studio event pictures that both push the same essential “Why can’t we all just get along?” philosophy. Though Dawn is often cited as the highlight of the reboot cycle — it’s got some tremendous nighttime warfare sequences, and a good villain in Toby Kebbell’s rage-poisoned Koba — there’s something faintly perfunctory about its drama. The very title of the movie tells us that the brief ceasefire it chronicles is doomed to fail. Some might call that fatalism, saying that the inherent futility of the peace talks lend them a tragic dimension. In practice, though, the Apes sequels lack a larger suspense. They dawdle and delay.

Of the new series, War for the Planet of the Apes arguably works the best on its own genre-inflected terms. There’s a standalone thrill to seeing Caesar transformed into a stoic, Eastwoodian figure of vengeance, and fun to be found in the way Reeves riffs visually and conceptually on the canon of combat cinema. And if we’re really not much closer to the implicit landing place of the franchise by the closing scenes, there’s some measure of closure in how the film ends, with a eulogy for Caesar and with humanity robbed, via a new disease, of its ability to speak. The new Apes movies are perhaps best appreciated as the story of one particular ape — a trilogy built on Serkis’ complex performance.

Last week’s Kingdom smartly makes no attempt to continue tracing that particular strand of the narrative. Instead, it leaps “many generations later,” picking up with a future where humans are now an endangered species and regarded by apes as an inferior life form. There are some interesting facets to this new world order, especially the way that the long-gone Caesar has survived through his legacy as an icon and a messiah figure inspiring both the tyrannical bonobo villain (Kevin Durand) and a gentle orangutan (Peter Macon) living a monkish life by the principles of Caesar’s leadership.

But even with a huge time jump and the resulting turnover of the cast of characters, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes can’t really commit to moving the franchise in a new direction, or toward any kind of punctuation. It ends up essentially resetting the human-ape conflict of the earlier movies, pulling a reboot within the reboot. There’s no larger arc here, just a poky meander through the same plot mechanics: the conflicted ape hero, the uneasy interspecies alliance, the warmongering bad guy to be vanquished before the rise of the next. How many variations on this formula can the producers churn out?

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes | Official Trailer

It’s enough to make you pine for the original Apes saga, which was goofier and less artful, but had a sense of progress, however cyclical. That franchise took big swings, thinking its way out of apparent dead ends. There was no topping the final twist of Planet of the Apes, but that didn’t stop 1970’s gonzo Beneath the Planet of the Apes from trying; its ending made the iconic dialogue of the previous film’s final scene literal with the intention of bringing the story to a permanent close. To somehow keep its cash cow alive, the studio turned again to time travel, and stumbled into a rather clever closed-loop structure for the series. Planet of the Apes became a self-fulfilling prophecy — a story that found the perfect ending in its own beginning. Now that’s fatalism.

The new Apes movies move only forward, with no destination in sight. Kingdom is the clearest proof yet that the architects of the franchise aren’t so much building toward an ending as finding a way to avoid one indefinitely. With the success of Kingdom, they’ve already announced plans for five more sequels. You could say these films are the ultimate realization of Hollywood’s ongoing prequel project: If they don’t reach the planet of the apes proper, they can just keep making movies, always putting the future on the horizon, never meaningfully changing the nature of the material. It’s the origin story that never ends.

Of course, Rise made no guarantee that this new Apes series would reach the same place where the first one started. We may never meet a time-traveling Charlton Heston or a Dr. Zaius. But it would be nice if there was something looming in the distance of the franchise, some conclusion as concrete (and satisfying) as an ancient statue jutting ominously out of the sand.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is now playing in theaters everywhere. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, visit his Authory page.