Review: Battle for the Planet of the Apes

Set years after “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” and ape leader Caesar (Roddy McDowell) has seen a tenuous peace between apes and humans, though with the former pretty much in charge. Caesar, who has a wife (series regular Natalie Trundy) and son now, faces challenges both internal and external. The latter comes in the form of the radiation-afflicted mutants led by Kolp (Severn Darden) who look to be biding their time until they’re ready to fight for rule of the planet. Claude Akins plays thuggish gorilla Aldo, who clearly has designs on leadership himself, and doesn’t much care how he achieves it. Austin Stoker plays MacDonald, brother of the character played by Hari Rhodes in the previous film.

The original “Apes” cycle somewhat stumbles its way to a close with this watchable, but clearly cheaply made 1973 effort from director J. Lee Thompson (“The Guns of Navarone”, “Cape Fear”, “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes”). Although Paul Dehn (scribe of the two previous “Apes” films) wrote the story it’s based on, the screenplay this time comes from the scribes of “The Omega Man”, the team of Joyce and John Corrington (who also worked on Roger Corman projects like “The Arena” and Martin Scorsese’s not entirely uninteresting “Boxcar Bertha”). I’m not sure if there was more on the written page than what we get on screen, but after a series recap, we’re left with about 70 minutes of time devoted to the film. Given there’s two plot-lines competing for dominance over those 70 minutes, it’s a real problem, albeit slightly less problematic than the rather feeble “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” where so little time was devoted to, y’know…apes. There’s simply not enough time here to deal adequately with both an external and internal conflict, and therefore both are undermined. So the film is at once both overstuffed and underdone. Apparently Dehn came in and re-wrote most of the Corringtons’ script, so one wonders if he threw a lot of meat out in the process that he didn’t add much back to.

At times it feels like “Conquest 1.5” with Severn Darden and the other radiation-afflicted people coming out from their hidey hole to square off with the apes. The way they’re so nonchalantly introduced into the film only solidifies this (and the overall cheap, ‘let’s get this over with’ feel of the film despite all the films being box-office successes warranting a bit more money and effort invested, surely). It’s really only the internal squabbling between Caesar and war-happy gorilla Aldo that feels like its own film.

On the plus side, the casting is really good here. Roddy McDowell by now owns the screen as Caesar, who has mostly done away with his more fiery characteristics to have settled down to being a loving father and husband, and a noble and well-meaning leader and hopeful unifier. Meanwhile, Claude Akins (as the chief gorilla thug Aldo), John Huston (In bookending scenes as the oratory orangutan elder Lawgiver), Lew Ayres (as the orangutan keeper of arms Mandemus), and singer/songwriter Paul Williams (as orangutan time-travel theorist Virgil) are all perfectly cast in their respective roles. Although it results in a very “Conquest 1.5” vibe, bringing back Severn Darden at least gives the film yet another fun, dryly malevolent turn from the underrated actor. I also enjoyed the music score by Leonard Rosenman (“Beneath the Planet of the Apes”, “Fantastic Voyage”), who once again seems inspired by the score from the first “Apes” film by Jerry Goldsmith.

Merely OK final film in the “Apes” cycle isn’t the conclusion fans will likely desire. It suffers from a deteriorated budget and a lack of committed effort from seemingly all but the cast. There’s too much to deal with and not enough time allowed to tell it. If it were afforded more room to live and breathe (and had a decent budget) it could’ve been quite good. As is, it’s watchable, but clearly flawed.

Rating: C+


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