Review: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

1991, and a plague has ridden the Earth of cats and dogs, so man has decided to domesticate the ape instead. This domestication has resulted in apes merely becoming slaves to humans. Circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban) and the talking ape son of Dr. Cornelius and Dr. Zira whom he has kept hidden for years are eventually exposed, leading to tragedy. The now grown ape calls himself Caesar (Roddy McDowall), and he becomes enraged at the brutality, cruelty, and hatred on display by humans towards his kind. So, quietly seething…Caesar plots. Don Murray plays the evil, hateful Governor, with Severn Darden and Hari Rhodes his underlings of wildly different dispositions. Natalie Trundy (previously a mutant in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”, and a well-meaning human in “Escape From the Planet of the Apes”) plays a female chimp here.

Just as with re-visiting the James Bond series recently, I have found myself changing my view on at least one of the films in the “Apes” cycle. It’s this dark, socially-conscious 1972 fourth entry from director J. Lee Thompson (“Cape Fear”, the “Guns of Navarone”, the subsequent “Battle for the Planet of the Apes”) and screenwriter Paul Dehn (writer of all the “Apes” sequels). I’ve always thought the Watts-inspired final 10 minutes was superlative, but felt previously that the rest of the film was dour, unengaging, and just no fun at all. Looking at it again, it’s not nearly as good as the previous “Escape From the Planet of the Apes”, but good enough to earn a solid rating.

One could argue that the riot plot is more indicative of the present in which the film was made rather than indicating any kind of future. However, a lot of sci-fi films, good ones, are guilty of that. “Barbarella” and “Soylent Green” spring to mind (though not everyone shares my opinion of those films). So that for me isn’t a credible flaw. In fact, the riot plot is the film’s great strength if anything. Shot in perfect, gritty 70s fashion by Bruce Surtees (“Dirty Harry”, “Play Misty for Me”) where even the handheld camerawork counts for the film instead of against it, it’s pretty well done. This worldview of a growing discontent and eventual uprising by the apes is interestingly set up. Sure, sci-fi films set in the future really ought to be careful when giving supposedly futuristic dates (this one’s set in 1991. Yep. I must’ve slept through the entire apes situation). It’s something Hollywood rarely seems to heed. Still, dated or not it works. It may indeed be grim and a stark contrast to the films before and after it, but thematically it’s a fascinating film, the plot is interesting, and Dehn has obviously put some real thought into it. It’s not a ‘fun’ film, but on this viewing I was certainly able to appreciate it for what it was saying and representing. The character played by Hari Rhodes, in particular is really interesting and full of implications (He also helps the film get out of a potentially horrendous racial pitfall in my view).

Don Murray is just OK as the lead villain, but fellow bad guy Severn Darden is tremendously oily and creepy in a role that would spill over into the next film. He’s got a touch of Donald Pleasance about him, actually. As for Roddy McDowall, this is his finest hour in the series. He does a terrific job of making Caesar different to his earlier role, Caesar’s father Cornelius. The normally rather genteel, witty actor gets good and angry and fiery towards the end of this. I do wish more time was devoted to showing how Caesar was able to communicate with his less-evolved ape brethren, it does seem a missed opportunity. It’s a bit of a shame that by this point the budget had shrunk and they seemed to just want to get it over with. This would prove particularly the case with the subsequent “Battle for the Planet of the Apes”, but it stands out here too because the film does show evidence of a brain in its head. Some of the ape makeup here is better than at other times, when you can see the obvious pull-over masks that were a sad development in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”.

An admittedly grim film, but a thematically fascinating “Apes” film with a couple of terrific performances by McDowall and Darden. It could’ve been even better if more care were put into it and the budget higher. Still, it works and I’ve previously greatly underrated it. 

Rating: B-


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