Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? Another Apes movie — not sure whether to trust my perception of an upward trend as the series goes on.
What did I get? After three shaky successes (at least in my eyes), Conquest is the Apes movie in which the incoherencies of the previous three movies begin to undermine the proceedings in a serious way. I preferred Escape to Beneath and Beneath to the original, but in truth the first one is probably the best one, and they’ve all got their problems. In Conquest, those problems finally take center stage.
In Conquest we jump forward twenty years or so from the present tense of Escape to the dystopian hellscape of 1991. In a bit of forced introductory exposition, Armando the circus proprietor, Montalbán having parlayed his brief appearance in Escape into what is basically the lead role here, explains to his chimpanzee charge Caesar (who, being literate, probably ought to know all of this) that in 1983 a plague, accidentally transmitted by the time-traveling chimpanzees Cornelius, Zira, and Milo in Escape, eliminated all dogs and cats from the earth. Seeking to satisfy their learned need for animal companionship, humans take up chimpanzees as pets but, impressed with their intelligence, quickly turn them into a slave caste. In order to keep the apes in their proper place, the United States has evolved into a police state. Quite an eventful eight years!
It may be that this compressed time frame is necessary due to the imperatives of the previous three movies. After all, in a mere 2,006 years (starting from 1967) humans will have annihilated themselves in a nuclear war, and the apes will have built up a tolerably advanced civilization in which humans are the mute simians and human civilization is no longer part of recorded history. Yet the events of Conquest, in which the enslaved apes rise up and overthrow their human overlords — the movie’s final line is “Tonight, we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!” — confound this version of events. After all, if the apes are in charge, then how is it that the human folly of the nuclear arms race results in the downfall of humankind? And wouldn’t that same conflagration have eliminated the (now-intelligent) apes too? I suppose that second problem should have been evident even in the first movie, but anyway.
As I said, the cracks in the firmament — which were there all along — are really beginning to show at this point. The Apes movies always had their strengths, specifically strong thematic material and the affecting presence of the apes themselves. Those elements are present here as well, except that the themes are now obliged to serve the absurdities of the narrative. Aside from the premise that slavery is an abomination in whatever form, I don’t really know what this movie is about — the themes were clearer in the earlier movies, which didn’t prevent them from being occasionally pretty incoherent in their own right. Conquest reveals the true nature of the series: Once you subtract the possibility of profundity, it becomes a lot more obvious that the real draw of the franchise was simply the arresting visual spectacle of apes running a society, enslaving humans, organizing an armed rebellion, and so on.
One problem with such undiluted themes is that they tend to prove too much. So okay, humans are most inhumane species of all, eager to warp their society and enslave their fellow primates at the drop of a hat. This implied barbarousness of humans is so absolute that the filmmakers themselves probably didn’t believe it — but such the narrative demonstrates. Nobody’s driving the bus anymore, there isn’t anything worth saying. The telltale signs of screenwriter Paul Dehn are present, and he did his level best to keep things engaging and intelligent. But there was only so much he could do.
What here smacks of 1972? It’s an old sci-fi movie, so quite a bit, but other than that, not a lot to say on this point. It is amusing to see the concrete piazzas of 1972 L.A. repurposed to signify the fascist America of 1991.
IMDB score: 5.8
My score: 4
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Writer: Paul Dehn
Starring: Roddy McDowall, Don Murray, Ricardo Montalbán, Natalie Trundy, Hari Rhodes, Severn Darden, Lou Wagner, John Randolph, Asa Maynor, H.M. Wynant, David Chow, Buck Kartalian, John Dennis, Paul Comi, Gordon Jump, Dick Spangler