Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Movie Review: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Recently I picked up the fantastic Blu-ray set of the Planet of the Apes saga, and have been working my way through the films having not seen them in several years (with the exception of the original). While I generally love the whole series, I was interested in the set for the primary reason of finally being able to see the oft discussed director’s cut of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Supposedly the alterations imposed for the theatrical release made quite a difference in the tone of the film, particularly with regard to the ending. As is frequently the case with challenging films, the footage was excised due to a negative reaction from test audiences, and because it put the film in jeopardy of earning an R rating. Having seen the unaltered Conquest I can honestly say I understand the former, and suspect the latter was a very real possibility. The “new” ending and various restored snippets not only make an already dark film darker, they also intensify the impact of the somewhat watered down message of the theatrical cut. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on what you are looking for in an Apes film experience. My feelings are somewhat mixed on the subject, but overall I prefer the director’s cut because it plays out in a more consistent fashion.

For those unfamiliar, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is fourth in the cycle of five entries in the Planet of the Apes series. The story picks up a few years after the events of Escape From the Planet of the Apes, with circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban) acting as foster father for the fully grown child of Cornelius and Zira (who were killed at the end of the third film). Roddy McDowall returns as the lead ape, who is given the prophetic name of Caesar during the course of the film. Due to a space virus that wiped out the Earth’s cat and dog population, humans have taken apes as the new domestic pet of choice. However given the apes’ more advanced abilities, they have also been put to work as servants in everywhere from restaurants to beauty salons. However there have been signs of a growing ape rebellion, leading to a heightened sense of paranoia on the part of the totalitarian-style government that exists in America (in the far flung year of 1991). When Armando is arrested for harboring the world’s only talking ape, Caesar goes underground and hides as a servant where he witnesses extreme cruelty. Not content to stand idly by while he watches the mistreatment of his fellows, he lays plans for a full-scale revolution. By the end of the film he and his followers have won a significant victory over the humans, marking the beginning of the "planet of the apes."

As a kid I saw Planet of the Apes a number of times on television, and it was one of those special films that was on another level for me (e.g. Star Wars, Superman, etc.). I was fascinated by the ape makeup and the whole environment of the film, and Charlton Heston’s Taylor quickly became an iconic hero alongside Captain Kirk and Han Solo. Interestingly I didn’t form a strong attachment with the other movies because they weren't shown often (or at all) in the television market I was in. I saw Battle for the Planet of the Apes a number of times, but the rest I only saw breif clips of. In the few scenes I caught of Conquest I remember it seeming rather bland due to its being staged on the University of California Irvine campus. The studio opted for the locale to save money, using the “futuristic” architecture of the school as a backdrop. Unfortunately it didn’t have the same impact as the wonderful sets of the earlier films. Of course now it doesn’t look so futuristic either, yet it still has a cold feeling about it which fits well with the mood they were shooting for. Either way it lacks the visual punch that the better films in the series possessed. As a result it was many years before random chance finally found me sitting down to watch Conquest (which I obtained in the laserdisc format in a record store bargain bin).

I’ve got to admit, despite my historic lack of interest, I was pretty excited when I popped that giant laserdisc into the player for that initial viewing. I thought just maybe there was potential for discovering a lost (to me at least) classic. Part of this goodwill came from my love of the original, and the other part came from the fact that I had just snagged a $70 laserdisc for $12. As laserdisc collectors out there will remember, the Apes films all went for a staggering $69.95 per film. An outrageous sum, but the only way to see them in widescreen back in the day. I had plopped that down for the first entry, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it for the rest. So watching Conquest on that initial viewing I was ready to be blown away. I’ll say this much, I felt I got every penny of my $12 back in entertainment value, but I was a little underwhelmed with Conquest as an Apes film. First off it was visually lacking due to scaled down production values. The costumes and makeup were clearly second rate in comparison to what had come before. More problematic than that however was a sense that Conquest lacked the courage of its convictions. After building up a rather pessimistic scenario, there was an out of left field happyish ending that seemed to belong to an entirely different film. Despite staging a pretty violent siege, Caesar is quickly talked into a peaceful/compassionate resolution.

Let me set the record straight before we go any further, I’m not one who likes downer endings just for their own sake. There are some folks who will herald a film for being brave or cool because it takes the road less traveled by denying the audience a happy conclusion. This proposition only rings true in my opinion if the downer ending is internally consistent with the rest of the film in question. Using another prominent sci-fi example, it would have been outrageous for Return of the Jedi to end with the death of Han Solo and defeat of the Ewoks given its upbeat tone. Empire Strikes Back on the other hand ended appropriately on a down note as it was a consistently darker film. Conquest posesses neither levity or optimism at any point, so its arrival in the last couple of minutes makes no sense. It's even out of place with the other resolutions in the series, which all ended on an unapologetically apocalyptic note. Consider the following breakdown of POTA series conclusions:

*Planet of the Apes - Taylor discovers Statue of Liberty/learns of nuclear war.

*Beneath the Planet of the Apes - Taylor launches a warhead that destroys Earth.

*Escape from the Planet of the Apes - Cornelius and Zira are killed.

*Battle for the Planet of the Apes – Final shot of a tear rolling down the face of a statue of Caesar, indicating the failure of man and ape to coexist.

So as it stands when considering the theatrical incarnations of the films, Conquest is the odd man out. It completely defies the established Apes tradition of sending movie goers out of the auditorium with a sense of hopelessness/despair, which one could argue is the hallmark of the series. Being different is okay, but Conquest's forced ending was not earned and failed to ring true. On a side note it’s kind of fascinating that as kids we all loved the movies and didn’t focus on that apocalyptic element. I remember thinking the makeup was cool, and that I needed every POTA toy I could get my hands on. Yet every one of these films forecasted that mankind was doomed to destruction. Usually movies that promoted that idea or dealt with nuclear war freaked us out (e.g. The Day After). Strange that when that message was communicated via talking apes it somehow made the proceedings palatable. Weirder still to consider that a movie heralding doomsday would be marketed to kids with action figures, bed sheets, lunch boxes, board games, etc. I mean you wouldn’t have seen View Master reels or trading cards for The China Syndrome!

Anyhow back to Conquest being the exception to the rule. Flash forward 15 years from my laserdisc days, and I’m now finally able to see Conquest in the manner it was originally intended. You know a lot of times so-called director’s cuts don’t amount to much more than a few scene extensions that have zero impact on the final film. They are used as marketing tools to sell copies of movies you already own. I can emphatically say that is not the case with regard to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Although there is not a large amount of restored footage, what there is makes an incredible difference. The first thing that is noticeable is that the violent scenes are more intense. It’s not that the scenes are necessarily gratuitous or graphic, they are simply for lack of a better description more somber. In the original cut there is a superficial quality to the action that provides no sense of gravity, whereas the minor extensions here provide just enough weight to communicate the seriousness of the proceedings.

More important still is that the original ending has been put back in place, and it is not of the happy variety. Instead of backing away from his revolutionary zeal, Caesar holds true to his principle that might makes right. It’s not a pleasant scene to witness, but it is the only outcome that makes sense given all that has taken place. Furthermore Caesar’s corruption is a far more effective demonstration of the anti-violence message the filmmakers are trying to communicate. Seeing a once peaceful, heroic character succumb to the worst aspects of human (or ape) nature is sobering. Where the theatrical cut delivers empty speeches and false ringing changes of heart, this cut forces the viewer to witness the devestating consequences of completely abandoning compassion in favor of violence. The Apes films argue that while violence is sometimes necessary, if allowed to spiral out of control it can only lead to an ever narrowing path toward annihilation. The restoration of the original ending continues this theme, and also improves continuity with the final film in the franchise. Although the apes have established their dominance, in doing so they have become that which they fought against. Unable to break away they will set in place a never ending time loop which sees the destruction of man, ape, and ultimately the Earth.

There’s no doubt that the director’s cut of Conquest is a better film with the restored footage and original ending. It feels more in tune with the message of the series and is also internally consistent. That said it is a difficult film to watch in that it is visually less interesting than previous installments and is relentlessly bleak . . . now even more so. All of the other films, even the so-so Battle for the Planet of the Apes, had moments of adventure and humor. Those made the films both entertaining and thematically interesting. As a viewer who appreciates being entertained, the absence of those elements makes Conquest somewhat of a tough proposition. While in some ways the fact that it makes for uncomfortable viewing is a measure of its success, there is a problem in that Conquest simply doesn't balance the eye candy/fun factor vs. message delivery as well as the other films. I guess you could charge that it never sets out to do that in the first place, but the fact is if you're going to slap Caesar on a lunchbox you have to be prepared to give a little something back that would warrant that type of marketing. No matter, if you're an Apes fan you'll love this new version and probably have the lunchbox already : )

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