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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

Twentieth Century Fox had a winning franchise going with the Planet of the Apes series. The fourth film in the saga is Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (CPA). The film is a sequel in that it continues the story thread established in the prior three films. The story begins 20 years after the previous film's story ended. Only Roddy McDowall and Ricardo Montalban carry over from the third movie's cast. McDowall plays the grown son of his former character, Cornelius. Montalban returns as the circus owner, Armando. Natalie Trundy returns, but in a new role. She was one of the mutants in Beneath. She was Dr. Stephanie in Return. In CPA, she plays Lisa, the peripheral love interest for Caesar. There would be yet one more film in the direct series. The 2011 film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, would be "re-imagining" of CPA, but without the Taylor-Mutants-TimeTravel loop story line.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Text-on-screen says: North America, 1991. Apes (dressed in jumpsuits, red for gorillas, orange for orangutans, green for chimps) are herded into a wide concrete plaza to begin training in menial jobs. Ape Management Inc. trains apes for servile work. Armando brings the now-grown Milo (son of Cornelius and Zira from the third movie) into town to post handbills for his circus. Both are aghast at the oppressive treatment the apes receive. Milo breaks his silence. Armando tries to cover for him. "It was I who spoke." Milo melts into hiding. Armando tries to smooth things over, but the oppressive governor has him interrogated harshly. Milo sneaks into a cage of incoming orangutans, gets trained and put up for auction. Ironically, it is the governor who buys him. He lets Milo pick out his own name, so Milo points to the name Caesar in a book of names. Just as the governor's interrogators are about to break Armando , he jumps out of a window to his death, to avoid spilling the truth. Caesar is sad, then enraged at the human oppressors. Caesar organizes an underground rebellion. The uprisings cause more brutal crackdowns. Caesar is captured and tortured via electroshock into speaking. The governor orders him electrocuted, but the governor's aide sneaks off and cuts power to the shock table. Caesar, sensing the lack of shock, fakes it. Everyone leaves. Caesar escapes. He then organizes a full revolt with weapons and tactics. A prolonged hand-to-hand battle escalates. The apes were armed with knives, clubs and machetes, but eventually acquire guns. The apes succeed in breaching the governor's command headquarters. They capture the governor. He monologues about the apes representing the savage nature within man. Caesar orders him taken outside, then monologues about ape revolts rising around the world.. He intended to throw the governor to the mob, but entreaties from MacDonald, and Lisa persuade him to spare the governor. "Cast off your vengeance. Tonight, we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!" Fade to black and roll silent credits. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Even though CPA is the third sequel, the fourth movie in the series, it is a strong film. There is plenty of action, and the pacing is quick. The use of night shots for the revolt and riots works well, making the action feel more claustrophobic and chaotic. Roddy McDowall puts in a good job.

Cultural Connection
CPA beats the same racial-oppression drum as the third movie. The cruelty-to-animals theme was present too, but less flagrant. The struggle for civil equality for the black community had been going on for a long time, but it was still a sensitive issue. CPA was pushing the racial button pretty heavily.

Alternate Timeline -- Filmed in late 1971, the story is intended to be a look 20 years into the future. Some viewers scoff that their 1991 looked nothing like the movie. This is because it is an alternate timeline. In the third movie (Escape), Zira told how the apes were servants for 200 years. Then 300 years later, turned tables on the humans. This would be the presumed timeline Taylor was in, had Cornelius and Zira not returned. But, they did. When they came back, they brought a "space virus," that killed off all the dogs and cats in less than eight years. Apes were adopted into homes and quickly grew in size and intelligence -- perhaps enhanced by the same virus. In less than 20, the apes were advanced to the point it took Taylor's timeline 500 years to accomplish.

Alternate Ending -- The most common copy of CPA has the more-humane ending. The story is, the original screenplay called for a more brutal, revenge-satisfying ending. Fox is said to have gotten critical feedback from test audiences, so had some reshoots of new lines for a less violent, "humane" ending. Some viewers hanker for that original bloodier version, but the revised ending actually works better. As a (purported) retelling of the struggle for freedom by blacks, having the violent ending seriously undermines the message. Black "in power" would be no better than the whites. New boss, same as the old boss, as the song goes. The humane ending actually enhances the social message -- in much more of a Martin Luther King Jr. sort of way.

Neo-Nazis -- A curious, but no doubt obvious visual allusion, the security police in CPA's 1991 look very much like Nazi SS troopers. The high-peaked cap, the black uniforms with white piping, etc. This makes the symbolism a bit more complex, as the oppressors were not just average white-folks being self-centered. The apes were then somewhat symbolic of the jews -- an oppressed minority with no civil rights. The rapid collapse of the human "empire" in CPA is much more like the fall of Nazi Germany than the slow-fade of progress in racial equality.

Projected Self-loathing -- Very near the end of the film, the captured governor gives an explanation for why the humans oppressed the apes. It is a complex philosophical soup. After the customary evolution error, he gets to the meatier stuff. "Man was born of the ape, and there's still an ape curled up inside of every man. The beast that must be beaten into submission. The savage that has to be shackled and chained. You are that savage. When we hate you, we're hating the dark side of ourselves." There's a lot to chew on in that little speech.

Divine Judgement -- Caesar's closing speech contained a curious reference, especially in contrast to the governor's ego-centric world view. Caesar said it was destiny that apes overthrew man. "Destiny is the will of God. If it is destiny for man to be dominated, then it is God's will that he be dominated with compassion and understanding." This is likely part of the "second" (revised) ending. It makes a much more complex ending than the simpler. We win - you die, ending.

Watts Up? -- The riot scenes could well be re-imaginings of the mid-60s Watts riots that LA suffered. Those riots looked much more like a revolt or a war to those near the scene. The visuals may have been a bit too close for comfort, for LA viewers.

Brutalism -- The predominant shooting locations -- University of California, Irvine campus, and the Century City complex in LA -- were both examples of the architectural style called "brutalism." Vast expanses of concrete, tall patterned concrete walls, a landscape subdued and controlled via geometry. These actually make quite fitting locations for the oppression scenes.

Bottom line? CPA carries on the saga story thread, but is the stronger of the sequels. It's better than the second movie and less silly (at times) than the third. Despite the low budget, CPA manages to tell its story. For fans of the first three movies, CPA is a must. People who've not seen the first three might get a little lost (there are bits of digression to explain backstory). But, CPA is a strong story on its own -- provided one suspends criticism and just accepts intelligent man-sized apes.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

Conquest is no doubt the best PotA sequels. And it's honestly scary at times. well written with a touch of Serling here and there (a woman complains that she doesn't like cigarettes as much as she used to now that they're made so they can't kill her). Highly recommended, and good insights with the review.