Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

The Planet of the Apes is one of the classic science fiction movies, but alas the same cannot be said for the four sequels.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was released by 20th Century-Fox in 1972. J. Lee Thompson was otherwise a rather competent director but saddled with Paul Dehn’s painfully clumsy screenplay there was only so much he could do.

This time we jump forward a couple of decades from the third of the Apes movies (the rather average but not unentertaining Escape from the Planet of the Apes). All other household pets were wiped out by a plague so humans started keeping apes as pets. As the apes proved themselves to be so intelligent they soon became transformed from pets into slaves. How such a change could have come about is not revealed, for the very good reason that it makes no sense.

The child of Cornelius and Zira was supposedly killed at the end of the third movie but in fact he survived. He was brought up by kindly circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban). This ape, who will be named Caesar, is now the only ape on Earth capable of rational thought and speech.

The government of the US has now become a fascist police state (this movie is so cringe-inducingly 1970s it’s embarrassing). The apes are brutally conditioned to obedience. We are clearly expected to see the parallels with black slavery - and if we don’t see the parallels the movie beats us over the head with them until we do see. After Armando is arrested and tortured by the Establishment Pigs Caesar takes refuge among the slave apes but he has decided that the only answer to the oppression of the apes is revolution. We’re gonna smash the Establishment, man. Kill the Establishment Pigs. Just in case you still haven’t got the message the film has the police in Nazi-style uniforms.

Of course not all the Establishment Pigs are evil. Only the white ones. The white governor is evil and corrupt but his black aide MacDonald is a noble lover of freedom. This is both simplistic and vaguely insulting to both blacks and whites.

By making the bad guys into such cardboard cut-out melodrama villains this movie loses any impact it might have had, and also surrenders any opportunity to treat the human-ape conflict in an intelligent and thought-provoking way. We are bludgeoned into accepting the movie’s dubious premise. As always when Hollywood tries to engage with political issues the audience find themselves treated like dim-witted children who must be mercilessly coerced into agreement.

In this respect the movie compares poorly with the previous movie which had succeeded reasonably well in presenting the ape-human conflict as a genuine moral dilemma. No-one wanted to wish any harm to Cornelius and Zira but there was a real and plausible concern about what their existence could mean to human civilisation. The rights of individuals are not always easily reconcilable with the interests of society as a whole. Sometimes doing the right thing can turn out to be the wrong thing. Escape from the Planet of the Apes also worked as a real science fiction movie, with the future and the present interacting in complex and not always predictable ways.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes by contrast gives us a much less subtle moral dimension. It also offers less in the way of real science fictional ideas.

Roddy McDowell does his best as Caesar, but this is a much less interesting role than that of Cornelius. This is partly the fault of the script. Caesar could have been made a complex and conflicted character but the script ignores any possible psychological nuances in favour of making him a charismatic leader motivated purely by hate. McDowell had proved himself to be remarkably adept at conveying emotion and psychological conflict even through the layers of ape make-up. It’s a pity he didn’t get the chance to do very much with this character.

The screenplay really is the big problem here. It’s painfully obvious and painfully predictable, with not a trace of subtlety.

As always the ape make-up is extremely good. The budget was strictly limited but visually this is a very impressive motion picture. The bland and anonymous futuristic setting is perfect for the movie’s paranoid vision of the future. Thompson pulls off some good visual set-pieces (especially the ones using the pedestrian bridge with the tide of apes invisible at first but then quickly becoming very threatening). The crowd scenes and the battle scenes are handled deftly. With a limited number of extras Thompson was able to convince us that we were seeing a mass uprising.

The UK 20th Century-Fox Blu-Ray is at best moderately impressive. To me the image seems rather dark and picture quality overall is slightly below the standard you’d expect from a good DVD release.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes has the distinction of being by far the worst of the first four Planet of the Apes movies. Unfortunately the five movies in this cycle are all linked so if you want to watch the whole cycle you can’t really avoid this one, even though avoiding it would be a very attractive idea.

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