Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Retrospective: Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

Welcome back to the Planet of the Apes retrospective! In this entry we're going to cover the fifth film in the franchise (and final film in the original series), Battle for the Planet of the Apes! Before we get into that though I want to just preface with a follow-up on my assessment of Metal Gear's Quiet last week. In the last week, Cracked wrote an article on video game sexism, although the emphasis wasn't on objectification (which is the crux of the backlash against Quiet). Rather, it focuses on the more deep-seated issues of casual sexism in narratives which feminists have been more focused on in the last couple decades. It's a good article, and certainly an enlightening one if you aren't someone who studies feminism on a regular basis, but it's not without its own issues. For one thing, the point about daddy issues is deceptively selective and doesn't really pick the best examples - Ellie is hardly a blithering mess without her male protector (for that matter, Joel refuses to let her defend herself until later in the game... I'm pretty sure that the point is that Joel's the one with "issues"). I'm also currently playing through Bioshock Infinite, so I can't give a comprehensive response to this, but it seems to me that Elizabeth was being held against her will with an entire city dedicated to keeping her in her tower. There's also the problem that article slips into its own casual sexism by stating that "BioShock Infinite's Elizabeth was born with the ability to tear portals in time and space, then learned to pick locks anyway, then sat patiently in prison until a penis arrived to save her". Yeeeeeeaaaaaahhhhh... The point about Tomb Raider is interesting though - is there any male-based origin story where the guy has to get over crying and being horrified about killing people throughout the whole adventure? Sure it's probably more realistic, but maybe that's just more of an indictment of the macho male hero trope which is prevalent in gaming. Anyway, food for thought... now let's move on to the Apes.

For the record, my review is based on the Unrated cut of the film. Unlike Conquest, this cut doesn't have any substantial changes - it's just 10 more minutes of dialogue, longer shots and some minor subplots restored.

While each Apes movie had been financially successful, with each budget cut came diminishing financial returns. As a result, the producers decided that it was time to end the series on their own terms (although two separate television series were soon produced as well). The final film would follow Caesar trying to stop the apes from repeating the mistakes that led to the destruction of Earth and show how the mutants in Beneath came about. Conquest director J. Lee Thompson returned to direct, making him the only director to work on two Apes movies in the franchise's entire history. Unfortunately, long-time series screenwriter Paul Dehn had to drop out of script-writing duties due to health complications. Instead, the film was passed off to husband-wife screenwriting duo John and Joyce Corrington. The Corringtons had recently written the Charlton Heston zombie-vampire film, The Omega Man, and so it was felt that they could do the Apes' send-off justice. However, prior to getting the job, they had never even seen an Apes film so they didn't really know the tone, themes or plot of the series. Dehn was brought in to do final re-writes (he claimed to have rewritten 90% of the dialogue and changed the ending), but the WGA ruled that the film was largely based on the Corringtons' screenplay. In spite of that, Dehn's ending was the one which was filmed and Joyce Corrington is reported to have hated Dehn's ending.

Roddy McDowall and Natalie Trundy returned once again, as did Severn Darden, all reprising their roles from Conquest. Of the new cast, the most important was Claude Akins (who was mostly known for starring in Westerns) who was cast as the villainous gorilla general, Aldo. Austin Stoker was also brought in as a replacement to Hari Rhodes' MacDonald, playing that characters' brother (it is assumed that the MacDonald in Conquest was killed sometime between the two films). Songwriter Paul Williams was also brought in to play Virgil, Caesar's genius orangutan advisor. Lew Ayres, most famous for his role 40 years prior in All Quiet on the Western Front, has a small role as the philosophical orangutan who looks just like Pai Mei, Mandemus. John Huston (a screen legend in case you didn't know) also makes a cameo as The Lawgiver, providing a framing device for the film's action. Oh and a fun fact - John Landis, director of such awesome movies as An American Werewolf in London, Blues Brothers, Animal House and the Thriller video, appears in this as a minor role (he's "Jake's friend"... I couldn't tell you who the hell that is, but who cares - it's John freaking Landis)!


Much like Conquest, Battle suffers from a severely deficit production budget, which was maybe slightly higher than the budget for the previous film. The film is supposed to portray an epic battle between humans and apes for the control of the planet, but it ends up looking like more of a short skirmish than anything (I'll talk more about the battle later though). The first 4 minutes are also just reused footage from the previous films, providing a rather unnecessary recap to pad out time. The budget also means that the same ape costumes get reused, the matte paintings are cheaper than ever and the two armies can never appear in the same shots together (clearly they did the same thing my brothers and I did in our home movies - the same extras are playing both armies). The costumes also suffer, as the apes are using the same masks that have been lying around the studio for the last few years. The mutant humans get it the worst though, as they are devoid of their impressive make-up entirely. I think the best way to describe their new "mutations" is to say that it looks like someone jizzed hot glue on their faces.

It was Earth all along!

As for the story, Battle carries on from the more positive theatrical ending of Conquest with humans now serving the apes, but living in relative peace. However, the gorillas' leader, General Aldo, believes that humans should be exterminated and constantly clashes with Caesar over this point. Looking for guidance, Caesar decides to go into the ruins of Los Angeles to find video footage of his parents to try to discern the future of ape society. In doing so, they stir up a hidden society of mutant humans living in the fallout, led by Kolp. Kolp ends up pursuing Caesar back to Ape City and a battle is waged between the two sides. It's a pretty simple story, but you might notice one thing about it which differentiates it from previous Apes films - it's almost entirely devoid of social commentary and/or satire. All of the previous films in the franchise had shown that man brings about his own downfall, but in this one there really isn't much of a message about humanity - it's more concerned about the society of the apes. You might argue that the apes are supposed to be an analogue for humans, but it occurs to me that the message is more that the apes' society is going to be the same as humanity's, which again is more of a self-contained critique about the apes in the film.

In general, the script isn't anywhere as near as tight or clever as it was in previous Apes films either. Lines like "I think Aldo may be riding for a fall" come across like they were supposed to be clever, but don't succeed in that regard. Then there's lines like "one day you will be as tall as a king" which is supposed to be a touching moment, but the line is so stupid that it makes you go "umm... what?" instead. The only really good line is "ape shall never kill ape", which has actually become one of the most iconic lines in the whole series. Plot-wise, the film has other sections which don't make a lot of sense or which are too rushed, such as Caesar leaving Ape City without any sort of preparation as soon as he learns about the existence of the tapes of his parents... although to be fair this is probably more of an editing problem, but either way it hurts the flow of the film. When they get into Los Angeles, there's also an arbitrary 2 hour countdown before the apes cannot leave again (even though this is never brought up again). The whole idea of the video tapes of Cornelius and Zira is flawed as well because it turns out that some of these tapes they watch were obviously audio recordings in Escape - however, the film inexplicably treats them as video recordings regardless (clearly they think that we just forgot this fact). Oh and then there's the goofiness which is Mandemus' armory - all of the apes' weapons are kept behind a flimsy wooden door. Gee, I sure hope that an army of gorillas doesn't try to take over and steal them all... I'd like to think that these problems are all on the Corringtons, but I wouldn't be surprised if the bad lines in particular were all Paul Dehn's idea. Some story elements just don't work though either, such as the fact that this movie takes place at least 12-27 years after the last movie, and yet no one looks any older than they were in Conquest.


That said, there are some pretty good plot points and ideas that liven things up a bit. Probably the biggest of these plot points is when (SPOILER) Aldo learns that Caesar's son, Cornelius, has heard his plan to steal the guns. Aldo becomes quite sinister here, chasing Cornelius up a tree and then throwing the child from it, killing him. It's a pretty shocking moment and adds a lot of gravitas to the final showdown between Caesar and Aldo (which is another rather cool sequence). It's also nice to see the orangutans get more screentime after being sidelined for the last 2 films, getting only small cameos in Conquest. In particular, Virgil is a good introduction as Caesar's closest advisor and sort of acts like a heroic version of Otto Hasslein (he even regurgitates Hasslein's theory that time is like a highway with multiple exit points). The introduction of Aldo also manages to make Escape more of an interesting film - in that movie, it established that it was Aldo who first said "No!" and started the ape revolution. However, by having Caesar interrupt this timeline and bring about the ape revolution in a more peaceful manner, it creates new questions for viewers to mull over. Is it possible for Caesar to create a more peaceful future for apes and man since the revolution was not founded on bloodshed? The film itself leaves it uncertain.

As for the characters, McDowall's Caesar is the core as ever. Unfortunately, McDowall isn't given quite as much to work with as he has in previous Apes films, but he is still unquestionably the best actor of the lot. Aldo is a very one-dimensional villain, graduated with honours from the school of douchebaggery, who hates humans and therefore Caesar as well for not killing them. The second he opens his mouth, you know that he's going to be a bad guy. That said, Akins fulfills the meathead role well enough, even if the role is unfortunately one-note. Unfortunately, the rest of the acting is ranges from inconsistent to bad. Natalie Trundy is still pretty bad, but at least she has a very small role this time as Caesar's wife, Lisa (that said, for sticking it out for 4 Apes films, I appreciate her contribution to the longevity of the series). Kolp is probably the worst of the bunch though, and easily the worst antagonist in all of the Apes films - he just sounds bored the entire time, which doesn't exactly make him a particularly menacing villain by any means. I think he's meant to be the main villain, but he gets totally upstaged by Aldo (how often does the thug-villain overshadow the brain-villain?). MacDonald and Virgil both have their moments, but half of the time their lines are delivered with absolutely no emotion. In fact, this is really the first Apes movie with bad acting as the rule rather than the exception.


Of course then there's the main attraction, the titular battle. It's fairly entertaining, but as I've hinted at earlier, the miniscule budget really doesn't do it justice. Rather than an epic clash to determine who will rule the planet, instead we get a small skirmish between maybe 30-40 people per side which goes on for about 10 minutes. On top of that, the supposedly "mechanized" mutant army consists of a few mortars, a couple jeeps, a couple motorcycles and their major superweapon... a school bus. Yes, a school bus is the peak of their technological superiority. The penny pinching extends to the filming itself, as the mutants supposedly blow up a number of the apes' buildings... however, it's exceedingly obvious that they just blew up 1 or 2 buildings and filmed them from different angles to try to pass off a bunch of houses getting destroyed. That said, there's a surprisingly high number of explosions in the film to represent grenades, mortar strikes, etc.

As for the battle itself, it's kind of pathetic. The humans decide to advance through the middle of an open field with only a little smoke and mortar cover to stop them from getting mowed down by the apes. The apes set up a hasty barricade, but are quickly pushed back into the city... where Caesar springs a trap and then routs the surviving mutants. However, Aldo and his gorillas attack the fleeing mutants and kill them all. That's it. I know it's probably not a good idea to expect Black Hawk Down on a ~$1.7 million budget, but for the focal point of the film it's a bit of a letdown.

"If this monkey business about ownership of the planet can't be solved in one 10 minute battle, then what's the point!?!"

Then there's problems with the editing. While I like the final showdown between Caesar and Aldo, it was clearly edited really badly. It seems like Aldo was supposed to get killed by the other apes, but instead they decided to have Caesar chase him up a tree... however, when they speak to each other they're still clearly in the crowd together. Furthermore, as soon as Aldo drops from the tree, Caesar is back on the ground instantly. It seems that this sequence was changed and then they just tried to edit it and hope no one noticed (perhaps they thought that the crowd killing Aldo wasn't "personal" enough, so they made him die in a manner mirroring how he killed Cornelius... or maybe it was just really badly shot in the first place). It's not quite as obvious as Radioactive Man: The Movie, but it's still pretty damn noticeable and further evidence of how meager the budget was that they couldn't even properly shoot the finale. Other parts are edited in such a way that they lose their impact, especially the part near the opening when Aldo chases the teacher, Abe - it's supposed to be a suspenseful scene, but it is entirely devoid of suspense in the way it's filmed and edited (and it doesn't help that Abe doesn't look too distressed throughout the chase).

All-in-all, Battle for the Planet of the Apes is a pretty poor way to end the original series. The reduced budget once again crippled an Apes movie, but this time there wasn't a solid script or actors to save it. Simply put, Battle is easily the worst entry in the franchise up until this point and even a big fan of the series like me has a hard time defending, or even recommending, it.

4/10

Be sure to come back soon for part 6 of this retrospective series as we look at our first remake, Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes!

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