Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Retrospective: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Welcome back to the Planet of the Apes retrospective! In this entry we're going to cover the fourth film in the franchise, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes! However, before we get into that I want to talk a briefly about Metal Gear Solid V. As a huge fan of the series, I'm obviously very excited for the new game(s?) and have been gobbling up new details like candy. That said, I'm less-than-enthused about one particular character who Konami has been highlighting lately, and that's the new female sniper, Quiet. Details on her actual history and role are scarce, but all that we've gotten so far is a couple renders and a shot in the trailer. If you've been following the progress of the game and/or this story then you probably know where I'm going with this...

Yeah, she's basically stripperella. "Dressing" Quiet up like this just furthers the notion of sexism in video games and the nerdy virgin stereotype of those who play these sorts of games (EVA in MGS3 was bad enough). Even if there is a good reason for Quiet to be dressed this way, the damage has been done as Kojima has been getting a fair bit of backlash (which he has taken in stride). That said, I really do hope that there is a good reason for the outfit so that it's not just fanservice. For example, if she can photosynthesize and change her skin colour like The End then it would make perfect sense that she would wear that kind of outfit and then pretty much everything would be forgiven by me. Whatever the case, Kojima seems to have some sort of big reveal surrounding it, but I guess we'll have to wait... Metal Gear games tend to play their cards close to the chest... Anyway, let's get into Conquest of the Planet of the Apes...

Unlike all of the other Apes films to this point, Escape was written with the intention of producing a follow-up. Conquest was greenlit by Fox, but it was under an even more constrained budget than previous Apes films, estimated to be around $1.7 million. Escape had been designed around its small budget, reducing the number of on-screen apes and need for expensive sets - Conquest, on the other hand, could not do this. Conquest would require extensive use of extras for riot and battles scenes and was set 20 years in the future, which would require convincing futuristic technology and architecture. Simply put, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes might have been ones of the most constrained major studio sci-fi films ever released. As a result, major cost-cutting was needed if they were even going to stand a chance at releasing the film. Costumes and props were reused from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, City Beneath the SeaThe Time Tunnel and previous Apes films, and the bulk of the movie was filmed in and around the Irvine campus of the University of California - in particular, the social science complex. This complex had been designed with a futuristic aesthetic, and so it could double as a futuristic city block. Unfortunately this area was relatively small, so the crew ended up filming it from different angles to try to convince the audience that this one complex was many parts of a sprawling metropolis (it doesn't really work).

Conquest was directed by J. Lee Thompson, a longtime fan of the series who was known for such films as the original Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone. Thompson was a fairly accomplished director who was very hands-on with the production - he made the human characters wear muted clothing and the apes wear bright, vibrant colours to make them stand out more (a technique familiar to fans of Star Wars). The film was written by long-time Apes screenwriter, Paul Dehn. As with previous films in the series, he drew upon previous experience and current events to create a story that would resonate with the audience. This time he decided to incorporate references to racial conflict, civil rights movements and the history of slavery. These would become more relevant by filming some scenes in a documentary style, since civil rights and racial clashes were very much in the news at the time. The script and film were also quite notable for being considerably more violent than previous Apes films. All of the other movies in the series had G ratings, but Conquest was pushing a hard PG (think of some of the violent content in Raiders of the Lost Ark and you'll have a good idea of how bloody it gets at times). Unfortunately, further studio meddling meant that some of the more violent bits were excised to avoid a potential R rating. This was bad enough, but it also meant that the film's ending was changed (which I'll get to later) and that the opening of the film was removed entirely. This is a real shame because the opening sounds like it was quite affecting (police shoot an escaped ape, only to discover that the ape was covered in bruises and welts, indicating that he had been severely abused by his masters). While the other footage has been released in the Unrated Blu-ray version of Conquest, the original opening has not been restored and I fear that it may have been lost entirely.

As for the cast, Roddy McDowall returns once more, this time playing Cornelius' son, Caesar. Natalie Trundy also returns as a serving chimpanzee, Lisa. Ricardo Montalbán is the only returning cast member to be playing a recurring character, returning once again as zookeeper Armando. Other noteworthy cast are Don Murray as the villainous Governor Breck and Hari Rhodes as his moral second-in-command MacDonald. While he has a fairly minor role in this film, Severn Darden's character, Kolp, is also worth mentioning as he would carry on Breck's legacy in the next Apes film.

The story of Conquest is fairly straightforward - 20 years after the previous film, the chimpanzee Milo is brought to civilization by Armando and is horrified to discover that humans have enslaved apes as predicted by Cornelius and Zira. Milo is enraged by this and ends up going on the run, hiding amongst the apes and observing the humans. Eventually he takes on the name Caesar and becomes a leader for the apes, starting an armed revolution against the humans. While the story is relatively simple, it has some fantastic ideas at its core. The film has a lot to say about power relations and slavery (in fact I wrote a short paper about the film in my second year of university, analyzing it through Hegel's master-slave dialectic). The master-slave dialectic is made most obvious through the humans and the apes, but it also crops up in regards to race relations. Governor Breck's second-in-command, MacDonald, often makes references to the history of slavery, suggesting that he doesn't approve of the way that Breck is repeating the past. However, it is quite clear that there is a power dynamic between the pair and that MacDonald is seen as another slave by Breck himself, despite being a supposedly "free" man. Inevitably, both the apes and MacDonald rise up against their "masters", with the (re-edited) ending representing a possible synthesis. The film also emphasizes the power of speech - the humans are terrified by the idea that there may be an ape capable of speech, which relates to the importance of power relations, identity and the ability to have a voice (key in theories regarding race, feminism, aboriginal rights, etc). Similar to Caliban in The Tempest, the ability to speak will give the apes self-awareness and cause them to revolt. Simply put, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes has some fantastic ideas at its core which may not be entirely obvious at first glance.

Unfortunately, in spite of the good ideas that Conquest has, the budget does not allow the film to actually do justice to them. In spite of (or perhaps because of) all the cost-cutting measures used, Conquest feels a bit tacky - if Fox had given the production even $2-3 million more then the film could have been far more convincing and spectacular. The sets are noticeably cheap and unambitious-looking and there's often minimal lighting used (if any). Furthermore, sometimes the footage is just really bad looking and the setting doesn't feel like a sprawling city. Instead, it feels more like a block or two in a city district, which really cheapens the impact of the supposed "ape revolution". Then there's moments where the film just feel incomplete, like they didn't have the budget to edit things together properly (which they probably didn't). For example, suddenly the apes start revolting just because Caesar looks at them - we're not given any indication that he has actually become their leader figure yet, so it just comes out of the blue. Another instance of this is when the revolution itself happens - Caesar escapes captivity, but as soon as he does so the apes have all gathered and suddenly they're ready to kick some ass. Then there's really bad cost-cutting measures, such as the "wireless phones". Check out the picture below (click on it if you need to):

Notice anything odd about that phone? How about the mismatched red tape along the bottom where they obviously cut off the wire to make it look like a future-phone? Yeah, the film's that tacky... Then there's just plain embarrassing moments, particularly when Caesar gets tortured by the humans. They hook him up to an electrocution machine, but MacDonald shuts off the power... only for Caesar to FREAKING PRETEND TO BE DEAD. This leaves Breck and Kolp 100% satisfied and no one even thinks to check and see if he's maybe not really dead, throw out the body, notice that the machine wasn't even working or something. It's a major facepalm moment for sure.

However, not everything's all that bad. The costumes might be a bit cheap, but the apes themselves look quite good, especially considering how many of them there are (and the masks are integrated far better than they were in Beneath). The ape revolution itself is pretty exciting, featuring dozens of ape and humans battling it out with each other (although the music is a major letdown). The scene where Caesar names himself is also pretty damn awesome, and Breck's line "Caesar? A king?" is just the best way to end it.

Geez, we got all this way without even talking about the characters. Roddy McDowall sells it yet again as Caesar. You could be forgiven for expecting him to be a carbon-copy of Cornelius, but you'd be wrong - Caesar is a whole different character than Cornelius. Cornelius was timid and cautious, whereas Caesar is brash, commanding and confident. He's basically ape-Jesus or ape-Che Guevara. MacDonald is decent enough, although sometimes Hari Rhodes over-emphasizes his lines. Ricardo Montalbán is also awesome once again as Armando, although he isn't given nearly enough screen time. Unfortunately, despite no longer having a speaking role, Natalie Trundy is embarrassingly bad yet again. Since she can't speak she exaggerates like mad, playing her chimpanzee as a cartoonishly doe-eyed southern belle. Then when Caesar gets taken to her for breeding, she lies there like a sultry pin-up girl... again, it's embarrassing (and vomit-inducing... well, unless you're a furry anyway).

As for Governor Breck, he's more of a straight-laced villain than previous Apes nemeses. Most of the other villains had been somewhat sympathetic, but Breck basically just hates apes and think they all deserve to be enslaved and beaten whenever necessary. I guess it's noble that he doesn't want apes to control the world, but it's not really played up as the sort of thing that would make him sympathetic. Don Murray plays the part with a great deal of passion (and some good old-fashioned ham), so he's quite fun to watch in the role. However, his assertion that humanity enslaves apes because they represent the evil inside of mankind just comes out of nowhere - had it been set up in the narrative somewhere I might have bought it, but just throwing it in in the last five minutes of the film was ill-judged.

And finally we get to the controversy surrounding the film's ending. Watching Conquest, it's pretty obvious that the ending has been re-cut - suddenly the camera zooms in on Caesar's face (with really grainy footage to boot) and he says a speech about forgiving humans for their perpetrated evils, while the same footage of MacDonald looking surprised and Lisa blinking and looking up is repeated a few times between shots of onlooking apes. It's terribly edited and very clearly a patch job because Fox refused to give the production any more money. In fact, it's so badly done that it further diminishes the quality of the film. What was so wrong with the original that they had to cobble together a new ending so badly? Well check it out thanks to the magic of Youtube:

In case the video isn't available anymore, here's the original ending: Caesar tells the apes to show Breck no mercy, and then they proceed to beat him to death with their rifles, signifying that the apes will be no better rulers than the humans were. It's a pretty damn bleak ending, but it fits well. That said... I'm kind of torn on it. I think I actually prefer the message of the theatrical ending, but I hate how it was integrated. If it was filmed properly then I think I'd actually like the theatrical ending more, but considering how it was done I much prefer the unrated ending (even if it isn't canon anymore).

So clearly Conquest is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand it has a fantastic story, Caesar is awesome and there are some very exciting moments. On the other hand, it is ridiculously cheap, has been torn apart by studio meddling and has some embarrassing moments. Conquest might just be the most divisive entry in the original Apes series because of this - if you can't get past the tackiness and shoddy bits then you might not be able to appreciate the film. To be honest, Conquest might actually be my favourite Apes sequel in the original series although I'll acknowledge that it isn't nearly as good as Escape. If only the studio had given it a proper budget and hadn't meddled with the production so badly we might have gotten an awesome film out of the deal... ;)


Be sure to come back soon for part 5 of this retrospective series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes!

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