Friday, June 17, 2016

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes!

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is a thoroughly "B" movie but one I always like better than it deserves. The fourth installment of the Apes saga shows us just exactly how the Planet of the Apes got started and how richly humans (that's us) deserved to be humbled and stuck out in the woods eating corn waiting for a gorilla on horseback to shoot us in the ass.

Roddy McDowall returns to the franchise playing his own son named "Caesar". Ricardo Montalban reprises his role from the last movie of "Armando",the circus owner who has cared for the son of Cornelius and Zira for a few decades. Natalie Trundy portrays the ape "Lisa" who eventually plays a key role. Trundy has been in all three of the PotA sequels, a different character in each. (Since she was the wife of the producer Jacobs that makes sense I guess.)

The setting of the movie is the 1991, two decades in the future in the time of its release and one decade after the predicted decimation of all dogs and cats in the world, creating a need for new human pets. Very quickly these pets have been transformed into slaves and that's the world we see.

The setting of this movie is radically different, giving us a sterile future cityscape which appears like some unending vista of concrete and steel. No natural settings are ever pictured outside of a flashback and the movie does have a mildly claustrophobic feeling to it.

The core theme of race relations becomes dominant again in this movie as the clearly intelligent but still limited Apes are trained and forced into roles as menial labor for human society. Chimps wear green jumpsuits, the Gorillas wear red, and the Orangutans wear orange. Humans wear black for the most part, the soldiers looking very much like the old Nazi SS.

The story is pretty straightforward. After years in the provinces Armando brings Caesar to the big city and there for the first time the talking chimp sees the real injustices his kind suffer at the hands of callous humans. His anger bristles causing much trouble and Armando tries to protect him, even surrendering himself to the authorities who still suspect the famed talking child of Cornelius and Zira still lives. Armando gives his life to save Caesar's secret, who has inserted himself into the larger ape community (playing on the notion that all apes look alike). Caesar's anger grows and he uses his apparent mental control of other apes to foment rebellion which he triggers after the authorities try to kill him. The uprising is violent and brutal but at the end Caesar holds out hope that a new status quo might be achieved.

That ending apparently was not the original and frankly it shows. The violence in the story grows and grows and the brutal outcome seems inevitable and in the first version of the movie was so. But cooler heads prevailed and a more peaceful and oddly upbeat ending was cobbled together. The last scene is a city in flames and despite Caesar's altered message of coexistence, it's that image which properly caps the narrative. These movies all have downbeat endings and this one should be no different.

If the movie has a fundamental flaw is that it doesn't trust its audience enough to get the message. The racial comparisons are so on the nose that seeing the movie through any other lens seems unlikely, so the addition of commentary to the film to reinforce that idea seems unwieldy. Hari Roades plays an intermediary between the Governor (he is his aide) and Caesar (he is his confidant and helps him escape) and since Roades is the only black human face in the movie, his role seems obvious. The overwrought nature of the theme comes across heavy handed and undermines the lasting power of the movie. 

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  1. Over the years this has become my second-favorite Apes movie (after the original, of course). I defy anyone to watch the theatrical ending ("Tonight, we have seen the birth... of the PLANET OF THE APES!!!") and not feel chills.

    1. I agree about that line, it is rather thrilling. This movie has improved in my estimation. At first I was distracted by its lack of detail prompted by a limited budget, but I like the story more and more and forgive the limits the lack of cash puts on the production.

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