Monday, July 10, 2017

Summer School: 'Conquest of the Planet of the Apes' (1972)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

While it has its flaws, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is the first Apes sequel that really feels like it has a unique vision, rather than just a twist on the concept of the original movie. At the same time, it follow directly from the plots of the previous movies, building on them to create a wider Apes mythology (even with its inconsistencies). It still suffers from the budget limitations that have plagued all the sequels (despite all being box office successes, they were never afforded decent budgets), which are especially tough to deal with in a movie that's meant to be showing a worldwide revolution. The action here is less Planet of the Apes than Office Park of the Apes, taking place entirely in what looks like a single building complex. But within that limited scope, returning screenwriter Paul Dehn and director J. Lee Thompson tell an intense and sometimes powerful sci-fi story, with almost none of the silliness that plagued the last two movies.

Set 20 years after the events of Escape From the Planet of the Apes, Conquest brings back Roddy McDowall as Caesar, son of his original character Cornelius. Caesar has grown up in secret with circus leader Armando (Ricardo Montalban, giving a much more subdued performance this time) following the execution of his parents Cornelius and Zira, and in the meantime events have progressed exactly as his parents predicted: A plague wiped out all dogs and cats, apes were taken as pets and soon enlisted as slaves as their intelligence and ability to perform menial tasks increased. There's also some sort of authoritarian government in place, although Dehn leaves things vague (the movie takes place in "North America"), and the movie never explores what life is like outside this small urban area.

In this particular unnamed city, at least, keeping apes as servants seems like more trouble than it's worth, even before they foment rebellion. They seem to be constantly failing at their assigned tasks, freaking out and breaking stuff, and they've also displaced various paid human workers (as seen via protests in the early part of the movie). They're growing more intelligent and more rebellious, but the human government doubles down on keeping them as servants and subjecting them to harsh conditioning. After Armando is arrested and tortured, Caesar is rounded up with some fellow apes and pressed into service, while the government hunts him down (since he's the only ape who can speak). There are many obvious parallels to the history of slavery in America and the civil rights movement of the time, and the movie doesn't play coy with them, populating the cast with numerous black actors including Hari Rhodes as sympathetic government official MacDonald, who references America's slave-owning past explicitly.

The riot scenes in the movie's final act are visceral and violent (even after they were trimmed to avoid an R rating), and they resonate with the racial turbulence of the time. Thompson shoots many of the chaotic street scenes with the immediacy of a news broadcast, and the small-scale society feels like it's on the brink of collapse from the very beginning. The movie has a seriousness and urgency that the last two installments lacked, making up for its technical shortcomings (the ape costumes are pretty shoddy, and even McDowall's more detailed makeup doesn't allow him a lot of expressiveness) with strong ideas and forceful characters. It also brings a bit of hope to the ending, in contrast to the downers of the last two movies, although the original conclusion (restored in an alternate cut available on home video) featured the apes perpetuating the cycle of violence. Instead, Caesar ends by preaching compassion for the oppressor, without diluting the necessity of the rebellion. The first movie presented the ape society as flawed but more noble than humanity, and Conquest sets the stage for that eventual outcome.

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