How do the choices and relationships of our individual lives shape civilization? 

It’s a deep question, and one I wouldn’t expect a movie with a bunch of people running around in CGI monkey masks to try to tackle.

But once again Planet of the Apes has proven to be the best of our contemporary movie franchises. 

The fourth entrant in the reboot series, “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” picks up “many generations” after the death of Caesar at the end of the prior film. Our new hero is Noa, a chimpanzee in a cloistered clan. When the Masks, the army of strong-man styled conqueror Proximus arrive and kill his father and capture his tribe mates, Noa is thrust into an adventure.

Sci-fi persists in our cultural imagination not because it provides opportunities for gorgeous special effects, which this film has, nor because it has interesting, well-considered answers to questions like “what would the world be like if monkeys took over,” which this film also has. No, sci-fi works because it changes enough of the distracting details so we can focus on the deeper questions of who we are and why we do what we do.  The plot of the latest Planet of the Apes is literally what if a monkey starts to read Roman history and wants to build an empire. The sheer absurdity of the conceit thrusts you past the details into the questions.

And it’s in the questions that “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” thrives. Can friendships persist past fundamentally opposing goals? What level of utility justifies political violence? How do we reckon with the legacy of prophets? When is civil disobedience justified?  How are our identities built by the political realities of our day? They’re heady questions, and the film doesn’t take shortcuts in considering them. 

Perhaps the finest compliment I can give a film is that it has integrity. “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” has integrity. It is morally honest about the impacts of our choices. Because of that it is probably not the best film for children (or adults) who can’t bring their own morality to the film. The film doesn’t prescribe answers. But because of its internal honesty it’s a worthy canvas for the thoughtful viewer to play with.

The film also thrives in its artistry. The cast is spectacular, perhaps so good it distracts from Owen Teague’s solid ingénue performance as Noa.

Peter Macon, who has learned to act behind a mask as Bortas in The Orville, gives an award-worthy performance as the orangutan Raka, a mentor figure from the nearly defunct “order of Caesar” which promotes Caesar’s teachings on non-violence. 

Without spoiling much of the film’s plot, let me just say that the movie only works if Freya Allen who plays a human character can pull off an incredibly complex character arc. She is more than up to the task, and as a result has likely established herself among the next generation of movie stars. 

Kevin Durand as Proximus, Travis Jeffrey as Anaya, one of Noa’s captured friends, and William H. Macy as a human in Proximus’ service each give nuanced performances that elevate the material.

“War for the Planet of the Apes,” the third film in the series, was an epic masterpiece. This isn’t that. The story line gets caught in some clunky moments, and the film’s first act is a little too in love with its stage setting and world building. But Wes Ball, the new director, has clearly announced his competence with the series. This is a movie worth seeing.

The film’s PG-13 rating comes from wince-inducing violence, and a vulgarity that is played as a repeated relationship building moment. I certainly wouldn’t watch this film with any of my kids younger than 13, and only then if they are mature enough.

Four out of five stars. “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” opens nationwide on May 10th.