Thursday, August 04, 2011

Zaki's Retro Review: Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

By 1973, the end was very nearly in sight for the Planet of the Apes movie series, and it showed. The premise had begun to seem tired, and so did the filmmakers. Having already conquered the world in their last cinematic escapade, there was really nowhere for the titular hominids to go from there but down. And down they went with Battle for the Planet of the Apes, an altogether unsatisfactory fin de siècle that has some solid ideas at its center expounding on the series' omnipresent themes of race relations and destiny vs. free will, but is hobbled by its too-apparent dime-store budget and a singular lack of ambition.

Picking up an indeterminate number of years after Caesar went ape-crap on humanity, we learn that a nuclear war has occured in the interim (between which parties, it's never specified, though one presumes it was mankind's final option deployed against the apes). Heading a makeshift treehouse colony comprised of both ape and human, with the humans still speaking and intelligent but nonetheless occupying a position of subservience, Caesar (Roddy McDowall, natch) is trying very hard to embody the message of pacifism that he promoted in (the theatrical cut of) Conquest.

When an offhand discussion with his assistant McDonald (Austin Stoker, as the brother of the previous film's McDonald) provokes him to want to learn about his parents and their knowledge of Earth's future, Caesar and McDonald, along with genius orangutan Virgil (folk singer Paul Williams) trek to the bombed-out, atomic wreckage of the city from the previous movie, where they find archival video of Cornelius and Zira describing the planet's fiery finish. The trio also learn the city is occupied by a band of irradiated mutants (not quite as mutated as the ones in Beneath, but there's time yet for that) led by the insane Kolp (Severn Darden, reprising the role from Conquest) intent on killing the ape leader and retaking the planet.

Following a daring escape from the atomic city, the stage is soon set for a climactic final showdown between ape and man, with Caesar having to confront whether the two are locked into a perpetual conflict that's doomed to follow the path his parents have described, or if there's another way. All the while, he must also deal with a threat from within, with his arrogant chief of security, the gorilla General Aldo (Claude Akins), angling to depose Caesar and take over leadership of the fledgling Ape City. On days like this, I'll bet Caeser wishes he'd just kept his damn mouth shut back in '91...

Following on from Conquest, when the time came to bring the Apes cycle to its inevitable conclusion, writer Paul Dehn had every intention of taking the tale of the monkey planet to an even darker place than he had already, drafting an initial treatment that depicted a Caesar gone mad with power and ambition, paranoid about enemies on all sides. Dehn's story had Caesar, at war with the human mutants, surgically render his human subjects incapable of speech to keep them from plotting against him, and culminated in the ape leader's assassination by one of his own lieutenants, with stewardship of the planet falling to a council of elites.

We'll never know with any kind of certainty whether or not this Battle would have been better or worse than the version that was eventually made, but it would have definitively closed the loop with the first and second films, very much falling in line with Dehn's nihilistic worldview. However, both the studio and producer Arthur Jacobs wanted to pull things back a bit after Conquest dragged them right to the precipice of an "R" rating, and after health problems precluded Dehn from continuing on, they recruited the husband-and-wife team of John & Joyce Hooper Corrington (who also penned the Chuck Heston post-apocalyptic vehicle The Omega Man) to build on Dehn's work, taking it in a softer-edged direction than we'd come to expect from the series.

Thus, although it packs in several nods to the series' past and future history (unfortunately, a subplot regarding the doomsday bomb the mutants will one day worship was completely excised from the theatrical cut, only seeing daylight recently on home video), Battle for the Planet of the Apes can't help but feel slightly disconnected from its predecessors, with Dehn's poetic, literate touch especially missed. The Corringtons' story, depicting the apes' "fall from grace" as told via flashback by the Lawgiver (legendary director John Huston in a cameo) in a framing sequence set in the year 2670, is harmless for what it is and what it aspires to be, but as the long-heralded finale to what had turned into an epic saga, it can't help but seem somewhat inconsequential and ultimately unsatisfying.

Again headed up by J. Lee Thompson -- the only director to helm two Apes entries -- Battle had a budget that was subpar even by the low, low standards set by the previous sequels. This was evident in the makeup (particurly Akins' stiff, artificial ape-pearance) and also in the action scenes, which forced Thompson to rely on quick cuts of multiple camera angles to disguise his third act's lack of sweep and scope. He does what he can, but it sadly doesn't amount to very much. What should be a terrifying onslaught of mutant marauders in the final battle instead seems like three dozen or so ragtag hobos, complete with beat-up cars and schoolbuses.

In the end, a fragile détente is reached between ape and human, with the final scene's revelation of the Lawgiver speaking to a mixed group of ape and human children as he tells them that the unknown future that lies before them is known, ultimately, only to the dead. As we close in on a statue of the long-dead Caesar, we see a (symbolic) tear fall from his eye. A tear of joy at man and ape finally coexisting, or a tear of sadness for the immutable future that still awaits? The film leaves it to the audience to decide, though my inclination tends toward the latter (but that may just be a reflection of the sunny way I view humanity).

The Apes franchise, which spawned one instant classic and several very solid (and some not-so-solid) follow-ons, had clearly reached the end of its rope both creatively and financially. While Battle did solid box office even as it was shrugged off by critics, moves were already underway to continue the brand in a new medium. After airing the theatricals to stellar ratings, CBS ordered a Planet of the Apes live action series -- starring McDowall as fugitive chimp Galen, on the run with astronauts Ron Harper and James Naughton -- for fall '74. Though the series didn't make it through a full season, that didn't stop NBC from taking a swing, with the animated Return to the Planet of the Apes airing for thirteen episodes the following year.

That cartoon show was actually my first exposure to the whole Apes enchilada when it aired on Saudi TV in 1987, so clearly there's something there to recommend it even if time restrictions don't permit a full-on analysis of the two television adaptations. Though both ventures' perceived failure may have spelled the end of Apes' time as a preeminent pop culture force, it was never far from the public consciousness. And while Fox tried on-and-off for the next few decades to bring the brand back to the theaters, it wouldn't be until 2001, nearly thirty years after Battle, that they'd finally get their wish. But as so often with these things, sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for...

To Be Continued...


Anonymous said...

I read your review of "Rise" on HuffPost and then read the linked reviews of the old film series (which I saw in the theatres when they were originally released.

I appreciate that you took the time to do this, and having never read any of your reviews before, I was suspicious of what you might say. I was pleasantly surprised. I think your take on the series was spot-on, and give you credit for placing them in the context of their time--both socio-politically and in terms of cinematic history and technology. I am especially impressed given that your comments suggest you didn't grow up in the U.S. and therefore might not "get" the cultural milleau (sp?) from which these films emerged. Good job.

I haven't seen the new one yet, although my 14 year-old son saw it and loved it, for whatever that's worth. My older high school-aged son, who aspires to someday be a filmmaker insists that I must see it, although I'm reluctant and skeptical that it can add anything to a theme that's been done to death.

I was extremely disappointed with Burton's take on the franchise in 2001. I only wish that Hollywood would produce more memorable big budget films with ORIGINAL material. Enough with remakes of old films, TV shows, cartoons and comic books! They are so afraid to take a chance and prefer to "stick with something that has a proven track record and built-in audience (i.e., all the now-adult, former kids who grew up in the eighties watching 'The Transformers' & 'Smurfs')"

Zaki said...

Many thanks for the kind words! I had a blast doing this review series, so it's nice to know it was well-received on the other end!

The APES flicks have been pretty darn important in my life, so I'm somewhat grateful for this new movie coming out, as it gave me the opportunity to go back and really dive into them on this site.

And while I did grow up outside the US, I was living abroad as an expat American, so the cultural milieu was never too far from my mind. :-)