Last of the Monster Kids

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Friday, July 28, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

The “Planet of the Apes” franchise had been a reliable money-maker for Fox throughout the early seventies. However, each sequel made less than the film before it. The fifth film was rushed into production, going before cameras without a finished screenplay. Director J. Lee Thompson, returning from “Conquest,” was displeased with what script they had. Maybe the Fox executives were aware of this. By the time “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” hit theater screens, someone had clearly decided that these monkey movies had run their course. The film was sold as the final chapter in the series. At least for now.

In the years since “Conquest's” theatrical ending, a nuclear war has leveled the western world. The cities have been reduced to rumble. Only irradiated subhuman mutants live in the ruins. Caesar has built a society in the country, where humans and apes live in an unsteady peace. Factors within Ape City attempt to undermine Caesar's accomplishments. Aldo, a power-hungry gorilla, hates humans and dreams of overthrowing Caesar. In hopes of finding information about his parents, Caesar enters the mutant's city, provoking their violence. Aldo uses this conflict as a chance to seize power.

It's pretty clear that “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” was a rushed production. The film's story is seemingly comprised of leftover plot points from the previous sequels. The plots concerning the mutants, the lingering conflicts between apes and humans, and Aldo's disloyalty never come together into a satisfying whole. The ape society here is an awkward attempt to fuse what we saw in the first film with “Conquest's” revised ending. The mutants are inspired by “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” but are way more boring. The human/ape tension feels recycled from the last two installments. The pacing is directionless, the movie sloppily trudging from one event to the next. To learn that “Battle” was quickly pushed through production is not surprising at all.

The film's two central conflicts aren't especially compelling either. Aldo is a weak villain. His hatred for humans is vaguely defined. His earlier depiction as blatantly unintelligent doesn't pair well with his treacherous ambitions. The mutants' motivations are also poorly planned. They aren't interested in attacking apes until Caesar randomly shows up in their neighborhood. The film tries to give the mutant's attack some meaning but it doesn't wash. Ultimately, the film uses both story threads to wimp out. Caesar beats the mutants back but doesn't kill any of them, doesn't take prisoners, and allows them to leave. In other words, he sticks to his moral high ground. However, Aldo and his apes then show up to kill the mutants. So the bad guys get punished but the hero is freed of any consequences. Lame.

Despite its obvious weaknesses, I don't entirely dislike “Battle for the Planet of the Apes.” The early scenes in Ape City are, honestly, kind of cozy. It's a simple existence, explicitly vegetarian in nature. (Even though the gorillas are clearly wearing leather.) Weapons are carefully guarded and only used as a last resort. Apes and humans, both adults and children, learn in the same schools. This comfy sense of community is mostly thanks to the likable cast. Roddy McDowell continues to be a highly affable presence, even if Caesar has mellowed out to the point of almost being unrecognizable. The relationship between his wife and son are sweet. Paul Williams gets a “introducing” credit despite this being his third film role. He plays Virgil, the town genius who is amusing despite his smarty-pants antics.

Maybe the producers were aware that “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” felt a little thrown together. In hopes of granting the film a mythic quality, a framing device is added. Far in the future, an orangutan Lawgiver tells a mixed audience of humans and apes the film's story. Getting John Huston for this part, his reverberating voice making the narration seem more important, was a good idea. The film concludes on an ambiguous note. After the Lawgiver finishes his story, the camera zooms in on a statue of Caesar. The statue weeps. Which is super cheesy but interesting. Does Caesar's statue cry out of joy, that humans and apes eventually find peace? Or out of sadness, because that peace is ultimately impossible? It's an interesting note to take things out on, at the very least.

“Battle of the Planet of the Apes,” predictably, became the lowest grossing film in the series. It's undeniably a sloppy affair. However, there's enough of the old charm, even in this one, to make it worth seeing. The franchise wouldn't quite end here either. A television show, also starring Roddy McDowell, would air the next year. An animated series would follow the year after that. Both would only run for one season. Despite these setbacks, the “Planet of the Apes” series' place in sci-fi – and cinematic – history is secure. These older films might be slightly cheesy by modern standards but they continue to entertain and provoke thought even today. [6/10]

1 comment:

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