Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Zaki's Retro Review: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

When it came time for Planet of the Apes' fourth swing on the vine, unlike the previous two sequels, there was no struggle to find a story or figure out how best to continue on. After the tragic ending of Escape, writer Paul Dehn knew exactly where he wanted to go and what he wanted to show: the pivot point where man loses dominance over the planet and the beasts take over. The result, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (the thematic blueprint for this year's Rise of the Planet of the Apes), is the darkest and most violent chapter in a series that had fairly distinguished itself already with its dark subject matter and disturbing imagery.

Set in the then-future world of 1991, where things have turned into an Orwellian police state in the intervening years since Cornelius and Zira's deaths, we join the now-grown baby Milo (Roddy McDowall, securing his place as the primary face of the Apes franchise with this entry), renamed Caesar by his human father, the kindly circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban again) as they come to the big city for the first time. Making their way through the unnamed metropolis (actually LA's Century City Mall), he and we are quickly brought up to speed on how a plague from space nearly a decade ago killed all dogs and cats, leading to apes being taken on first as pets, then as slaves.

When the young chimp, horrified at the apes' mistreatment, inadvertently voices his frustration, Armando must turn himself in to the authorities, headed up by the cruel Governor Breck (Don Murray), to allay suspicions that he is the deceased ape-onauts' progeny. When Armando is killed in custody, Caesar, who has been hiding among his fellows, comes to understand that there can be no redemption for humanity, and leads the ape slaves -- gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees, all -- on a violent rampage through the city that culminates in either a call for peaceful coexistence or a bloodbath that spares none of the city's ruling elites. I'll explain that in just a bit.

Helmed by noted Brit director J. Lee Thompson (who was also in line to direct the first Apes when scheduling conflicts, and the extended development window, got in the way), Conquest remains the most visually distinct entry in the entire series -- something that was necessitated as much by the ever-shrinking budget as it was by creative concerns -- with its minimalist aesthetic, punctuated by hard angles and black-clad government stormtroopers, helping it stand apart both from what came before and what would follow in its wake.

And while Thompson certainly does what he can within his budgetary limitations, the larger problem that mars the project is one of logic. How, in less than twenty years, have apes evolved to the point where they'd become a servile class. While we can buy into apes looking and acting like humans twenty centuries from now, the evolved primates of Conquest fly in the face of thousands of years of evolution. I'm no Jane Goodall, but I'm pretty sure chimpanzees of today look exactly like chimpanzees of twenty years ago, as will the chimpanzees of twenty years from now. Nature doesn't work quite so fast as they'd have us believe here, which presents a rather sizable believability gap.

Whether or not it's an insurmountable gap is, I suppose, contingent on how engrossing one finds the larger point about slavery and oppression that Dehn is trying to make, and on that point I think he does a pretty good job of drawing us in. Coming as it did on the heels of the civil rights struggle and racial unrest of the late '60s, and with the apes' revolt staged to resemble the imagery of Watts and other riots, it's clear that Thompson was onboard with this too, but it does raise questions about the appropriateness of having simians as stand-ins for African-Americans in a racial analogy, even when one of the sympathetic human characters is black (Breck's assistant, MacDonald, played by Hari Rhodes).

In terms of performances, Conquest is solid almost across the board. McDowall in particular turns in his strongest work of his four Apes features, with Caesar's arc calling on him to convey equal parts pathos, guile, and rage. Also worth mentioning is Montalban, who already earned our sympathy and investment last time and does so again with limited screen time. Murray's Breck, cut from the same bigoted cloth as James Gregory's "The only good human is a dead human!" Ursus in Beneath, lacks some of the nuance that typified Escape's primary antagonist, Dr. Hasslein, but still gets to chew on some nice monologues, like near the end when he tells Caesar why men enslaved apes:
"Because your kind were once our ancestors. Man was born of the ape. And there's still an ape curled up inside of every man. The beast that must be whipped into submission. The savage that has to be shackled in chains. You are that beast, Caesar. You taint us. You poison our guts!"
Clearly, Breck is working a few things out.

And speaking of the ending, the completely predictable consequence of Dehn and Thompson's desire to make this penultimate Apes a parable about slavery and revolution was that its many scenes of blood and gore -- culminating in hordes of simians bludgeoning their former masters to death with their own weapons as an exultant Caesar looks on -- proved too much for the test audiences who first saw the completed film, not to mention the skittish studio that was already worried about alienating families from what had been, until then, one of their most family friendly properties (although, seriously, there's some pretty disturbing stuff in those earlier movies).

The jury-rigged solution they arrived at was to have McDowall hastily record a voiceover that would play over some recut and rearranged footage. As a result, the version paying auds saw in '72 had Caesar take his people to the absolute brink of bloodshed with a fiery speech about the death and destruction that's about to ensue, then exhort them to pull back and practice compassion. A kinder, gentler Caesar. While one could be forgiven for feeling a bit whiplashed, it was a necessary sop to a studio that probably didn't want a lead character who was instrumental in orchestrating a genocide.

But that original, uncut version, which remained almost entirely unseen for decades, did finally turn up a few years ago courtesy of the series' 40th anniversary blu-ray release. And for sheer, visceral, raw power, it easily tops the more watered-down theatrical cut, also providing a much clearer insight into Dehn's thought process, which was very much rooted in an intrinsic belief in man's essential irredeemability. One cycle of bloodshed inevitably leads to another and in turn starts another -- a circle of death that perpetuates itself for time immemorial with absolutely no one deserving of sympathy.

Upon its release, Conquest received the same positive response at the box office (again, relative to its reduced budget) that the previous entries had. Having gone from an obscure novel into a worldwide phenomenon, Planet of the Apes had proven its worth as a brand many times over to Fox, but it was also starting to feel like things had probably been taken as far as they could go story-wise. And wanting to go out on their own terms, the producers and the studio mutually decided that they'd go to the Apes well one more time to wrap up their saga. As to how things would wrap up, and whether anyone would be left standing at the end, those were questions the filmmakers would address in due time.

To Be Continued...


Anonymous said...

In the movie it is explained why apes are smarter and look different. People wanted smarter pets that could do more; that is why the apes were genetically modified.

Zaki said...

That's a reasonable extrapolation, but if it's in the movie, it's hidden way, WAY between the lines, because it's never stated.

Anonymous said...

A virus killed all the cats and dogs, people still wanted pets so they genetically modified apes as substitute pets.

Zaki said...

Well, like I said above, I'm not disputing that as a perfectly reasonable extrapolation of what MIGHT have happened, but it's never explicitly stated in the movie itself.