The Planet of the Apes film franchise consists of, to date, eight films released between 1968 and 2014. Eachweek, venerable Apes mega-fan Max Robinson and inquisitive relative newcomer Dylan Roth journey to the center of the Planet of the Apes experience, one movie at a time. This is Turn Around, Bright Eyes.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
SYNOPSIS: NORTH AMERICA – 1991. A space plague has killed all the dogs and cats, leaving the turtlenecked humans of the art deco future-past to domesticate apes as slaves, butlers and confidants. Will the surviving adult son of Cornelius and Zira rise to the occasion and lead the long prophesied ape revolution? HEY SEXY MAMA, WANNA KILL ALL HUMANS?
Dylan: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is the story of what happens when apes stop being polite and start being REAL. Humanity, mourning their lost puppies, have become the cruel and lazy jack-booted masters of an ape-slave-based economy, and it’s time to pay for their sins against simians.
Max: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was shot pretty much entirely in Century City, a Fox backlot turned neighborhood that is basically just a shopping mall. This is obvious in like every scene. On one hand, it gives the film some cool “future” architecture that is visually evocative of the kind of harsh angled structures we see in the ape village of the original film. On the other hand, it looks really fucking cheap.
Dylan: A lot of what aids the otherwise generic production value of Conquest is the introduction of some really weird alternate-future ideas early on. One of the first sequences in the film shows a group of humans protesting in front of the Ape Management building with signs that say phrases like “Hire Humans, Not Apes” and “Slaves are Scabs,” which efficiently hints at the larger world outside. And, obvious moral objections aside, wouldn’t you be pissed if the best job you could get was waiting tables, and then you lost that job to a chimp? It’s particularly galling because the ape slaves seem to suck at just about everything except killing all humans.
Max: The experience of watching Conquest is like being high while locked inside a mid-sized community college. Can we doubleback a sec and talk about how this movie hinges on “all cats and dogs are dead?” There’s no real point to this, it doesn’t even make sense as an excuse for domesticated apes since the humans in the film seem to hate the apes. Conquest seems like it’s an entire movie built up from the image of Ricardo Montalban showing his ape son a monument to all the dead dogs and cats and being like “so this is fucked up?” Also R.I.P. Armando, you were too outrageous for this shitty world.
Dylan: The cultural difference between the fairly chill U.S. government of Escape from the Planet of the Apes and the fascist nightmare of this film could only be explained by a worldwide pandemic of Carpathian Kitten Loss. There are only two humans in the entirety of Conquest that aren’t complete fucking monsters—there’s kindly old Armando, and then the stoic Old MacDonald who’s just had enough of the senseless man-on-ape violence. And by the end of the film, even our lead ape savior Caesar has become pretty vicious, not that we can blame him.
Max: UH LIKE SORT OF? It would’ve been interesting to give Caesar an arc where he goes from a scared victim to a righteous revolutionary to a cruel murderer but obvious studio interference means we get Roddy McDowell dialing back the ape revolution in the very last scene. Caesar’s army executing the oppressive ’70s newscaster-looking humans would’ve been the kind of tonally bleak ending that defines Planet of the Apes as a franchise, instead we get the live action version of Poochie going back to his home planet.
Dylan: While it’s infinitely more compelling and watchable than Beneath the Planet of the Apes, this may be the most bleak Apes movie yet, but you’re right that the sudden, obviously tacked-on reversal of Caesar’s violent revenge plot sucks all the wind out of the Conquest’s otherwise solid third act. The preceding ten minutes of the apes silently capturing the Ape Management complex are very affecting, especially considering it takes place in a bland Tony Hawk: Pro Skater level.
Max: Conquest’s biggest problem is, once the movie forgets about Milo/Caesar’s father/son relationship with Armando, there’s nothing emotionally to connect to. We root for the apes but only because the movie’s humans are boorish and evil. And while the previous films in the franchise’s invocations of racial allegory were fairly restrained, this movie straight up has Roddy McDowall throw slavery in a black dude’s face.
Dylan: MacDonald literally pleads to Caesar “as a descendent of slaves,” in a scene that’s embarrassing as performed, but is soooo much worse in the original shooting script. The ending of the film has an emotional intensity that is squandered by beating the themes into the audience’s head instead of doing the cool visual thing and violently beating it into the evil Ape Manager’s head instead.
Max: Conquest gives us apes with rifles, but it doesn’t give us apes with rifles on horses. It’s a mixed bag. DYLAN: Which Ape Was Your Favorite Ape?
Dylan: Conquest manages to offer even fewer apes to choose from than Escape from the Planet of the Apes, because out of the legion of apes in Caesar’s rebellion, only one of his companions has a name—Lisa, his Ape Mate—and she gets very little screentime and only one word of dialogue. So, Caesar sort of wins by default, but he’s also a legitimately interesting character. It’s fun to watch Roddy McDowell play someone so totally different from the quippy and docile Cornelius, all while wearing the exact same make-up.
Max: Caesar has this in the bag and would probably have it in the bag if there were other Major Apes on the strength of his wacked out supervillain monologue at the end. I have to give some props to the gorilla butler, that guy was alright. In conclusion, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is at best a flawed biopic about America’s turbulent 1990s.
Dylan: R.I.P., Offscreen Puppies.
Check back next week for Battle for the Planet of the Apes, a movie where two pudgy dudes ride a motorcycle and John Huston wears ape makeup.