Monday, 17 June 2013

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

Battle for the Planet of the Apes was the last of the original Planet of the Apes movies and I find myself rather relieved to finally get to the end of this series. This one was marginally less irritating than the preceding one, and perhaps slightly more fun.

This one follows the later career of Caesar (and yes it's Roddy McDowell yet again), the son of Cornelius and Zira. A nuclear war has more or less destroyed human civilisation. Caesar is more or less the king of a small mixed ape-human community. Theoretically the apes and the humans live in peace and harmony but clearly it’s the apes who call the shots. The community is a bit like a large-scale hippie commune existing on subsistent agriculture, and indeed the humans look like typical hopeless unwashed hippies. At least the apes look clean.

The apes apparently have their own version of political correctness and we see a human teacher getting himself in big trouble by saying a forbidden word. The word is the dreaded n-word - no. Humans are not allowed to say no to apes.

While the chimpanzees and the orang-utans seem happy enough living in bucolic squalor with the humans, the gorillas are not happy at all. They want the weapons that Caesar has locked up in the armoury. There’s some fairly blatant gorillaphobia going on here and I can’t imagine any gorilla watching this movie not finding it offensive. Since the humans are so down-trodden someone else has to play the role of the bad guys, and it seems that the gorillas got elected.

Caesar is always feeling sorry for himself for being an orphan until his human pal MacDonald tells him that it’s possible for him to see and hear his parents. In they can find their way to the Archives in the nearby devastated city they can find videotapes of Cornelius and Zira. The city is the Forbidden City, but since Caesar was the one who made it forbidden he can ignore the prohibition. It’s no fun being a king if you can’t break your own rules. So Caesar, MacDonald and the orang-utan savant Virgil set off for the Forbidden City.

They discover that it’s not uninhabited as they’d assumed. It’s full of humans, and they’re all mutants and they’re bad people (definite mutantphobia here). The mutants didn’t know about Caesar’s miniature kingdom but now that they do know they’re eager to conquer it. There’s no reason that they’d want to but bad people don’t need a reason. Now Caesar’s kingdom is under threat of invasion and the gorillas can’t wait to get their hands on those weapons. We end up with a goofy but fairly enjoyable battle scene.

This movie in many ways is a logical successor to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, with the same disturbing racial politics. The only black human is MacDonald and he’s brave and noble and a true friend to both humans and apes. All the evil mutants are white.

It’s interesting to see the way this cycle of films develops in its attitude towards humans and apes. The first movie made it very plain that the apes could be every bit as violent, cruel, brutal and arrogant as humans. In fact that’s sort of the point, that any oppressed population that suddenly finds itself able to become the oppressor will do so, and will become every bit as oppressive as the previous oppressors. Power will always corrupt.

But as the series continued humans were cast more and more as the bad guys, with the apes either as victims or as wise and benevolent rulers. That created a problem once human civilisation collapsed so then suddenly we see the gorillas become the bad guys. The chimpanzees and the orang-utans are always wise and benevolent and peaceful. It’s those damned gorillas who cause all the problems in ape society. Considering that these movies bent over backwards to be politically correct and progressive in their racial politics it’s rather ironic that the series ends with one race of apes condemned as being inherently violent and oppressive. Especially when the bad apes turn out to be the darkest of the three ape races.

The inconvenient fact that the first movie shows us the chimpanzees and the orang-utans being quite happy to live in a society that oppressed humans also gets more and more downplayed.

You can’t help feeling that the writers of the later installments became increasingly embarrassed by the first movie, and they seemed to get themselves twisted into knots trying to keep the essential structure of the series intact while making it more and more pro-ape and anti-human.

The later sequels suffered from increasingly tight budgets. Both Escape from the Planet of the Apes and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes managed to look fairly slick in spite of this. Indeed Conquest is quite impressive visually. In this final installment though the tight budget finally started to bite and it has a distinctly low-budget look to it.

J. Lee Thompson, who directed the final two films, was a generally competent director and does a fairly solid job.

Roddy McDowell had by this time established himself as the number one actor when it came to playing apes. He certainly had a knack for conveying emotion even with the ape make-up. The supporting cast in this last movie mostly find themselves playing rather simplistic roles that don’t call for much in the way of acting.

You expect an American movie of the 70s to be filled with kneejerk self-loathing anti-Americanism and simplistic radical chic politics and that’s what this movie delivers. While the other movies in the series at least managed to wrestle with a few complex ideas the screenplay for this last Ape movie is muddled and generally uninteresting.

The Blu-Ray transfer for this movie (in the UK Blu-Ray boxed set) is exceptionally good, being very bright and absolutely crystal clear.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes provides a disappointing conclusion to a generally disappointing movie series. The first movie was superb but the sequels are not really worth bothering with.

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