The Planet of the Apes franchise was not created to leave you feeling swell. Born from the brains of Michael Wilson and Rod Serling (adapting Pierre Boulle’s mediocre novel), the original Planet of the Apes was a viciously angry morality play condemning humanity’s seemingly apathetic march towards doomsday. Colonel Taylor’s (Charlton Heston) primate tribunal skewers our own dark ignorance, and our desperate desire to cling to ancient nonsensical texts. Just when you think you’re free from tyranny, the audience discovers we’ve already damned Taylor thousands of years prior.
Planet of the Apes is a hopeless saga that only plummets further into despair the farther it chugs along. The second film digs Beneath the Planet of the Apes where The Bomb is the new power worthy of worship, and we meet its mushroom cloud release with a smile. Three brilliant chimpanzees flee destruction in Escape From The Planet of the Apes only to fall victim to the hatred of modern day America. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes awkwardly, and absolutely painfully wallows in the imagery of the 1965 Watts riots. The hope of the civil rights movement died three years later with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and screenwriter Paul Dehn grotesquely folds that forsaken devastation into his social science-fiction.
Just as the sun crests over the horizon a storm cloud erupts with thunder. Never allowing us respite is an essential element to the success of the reboot as well. In both Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, directors Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reaves embrace that rug from under your feet climax. As we cheer on the vengeful freedom of Andy Serkis’ Caesar, a plague stretches across the globe, nearly obliterating the human population. His victorious skirmish with Gary Oldman’s ragtag military only promises further war with the remaining humans and fractures the unity of his tribe. There are no happy endings. We don’t deserve them.
Choosing the bleakest entry in the Planet of the Apes saga is an unwinnable task, but picking up after a film that sees the murder of the compassionate chimpanzee scientists Cornelius and Zira, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes gets my vote because of how it necessitates their offspring’s violent revolt against our crumbling human society. Set within an unnamed North American city during the grim future of 1991, Conquest reveals a nation of fascists happily releasing their rights for fear of the ape uprising prophesied in the previous third film. Gorillas, Orangutans, and Chimpanzees have replaced household pets after dogs and cats were eradicated from some unknown disease. However, they quickly graduate to slaves as their IQs begin to rise. The apes are a domesticated work force tasked with menial labor: janitors, waiters, construction workers, etc.
Cornelius may be dead, but actor Roddy McDowell remains the true centerpiece of the franchise when he returns to the makeup as his son, Milo. Raised in secret by Ricardo Montalban’s circus owner, Milo must not reveal his intelligence to a society ready to squash these pets at the first sign of evolution. As he’s paraded through town on a leash, Milo witnesses Ape Management stormtroopers beating on a loitering gorilla. He calls out in rage, “Lousy Human Bastards!” and Montalban must accept responsibility for fear of Milo’s capture.
From there Milo finds himself within the confines of an ape-reconditioning center. Here his people are taught to pour water, shine shoes, and dodge flame throwers. Guards are heard refereeing to this lot as “uppity” but good stock for breeding. Gross. It’s one of many scenes that will have you squirming. Milo is sold on an auction block to the local tyrant Governor Breck, who suspects there is more to this chimp than an above average intelligence. While sussing out the mystery, Breck asks Milo to pick a new name from out of the dictionary. Milo’s finger lands on “Caesar” and a king is born. Rebellion found in a word.
The rechristened Caesar stumbles out into the city, tears streaming down his face, a scream building in his throat. The erupting fury ignites a rallying cry to the apes ensnared in their shackles. Underground, Caesar begins to gather his revolutionaries. They bring him weapons: kitchen knives, meat cleavers, kerosene. When they take to the streets for the climax the frame is lit ablaze with their wrath. Riot police line up for a shooting gallery, but they are outnumbered, and the apes rip through their barricade. Faces are smashed, limbs were torn, stomachs stabbed, and the corpses are stacked high in a pile at Caesar’s feet.
Roddy McDowell’s final speech to his oppressors and our camera is a powerfully violent declaration. If we cannot take care of this planet why shouldn’t we just allow the apes to rule?
“Where there is fire, there is smoke. And in that smoke, from this day forward, my people will crouch and conspire and plot and plan for the inevitable day of Man’s downfall – the day when he finally and self-destructively turns his weapons against his own kind. The day of the writing in the sky, when your cities lie buried under radioactive rubble! When the sea is a dead sea, and the land is a wasteland out of which I will lead my people from their captivity! And we will build our own cities in which there will be no place for humans except to serve our ends! And we shall found our own armies, our own religion, our own dynasty! And that day is upon you… now!”
Fade to black. Chimpanzee cries are the only remaining music over the credits. It’s a brutal criticism of our society’s failings, and it’s a silly sci-fi lecture that I still have trouble staring directly into 45 years after its release. On the nose? Sure, but through McDowell’s hate-fueled performance that final scene is about as ugly and angry as the franchise gets. Possibly too ugly. In 1972, 20th Century Fox could not allow such an ending to lie. A more optimistic amendment had to be made, and Caesar’s final words to the audience offer us an out.
“But now… now we will put away our hatred. Now we will put down our weapons. We have passed through the night of the fires, and those who were our masters are now our servants. And we, who are not human, can afford to be humane. Destiny is the will of God, and if it is Man’s destiny to be dominated, it is God’s will that he be dominated with compassion, and understanding. So, cast out your vengeance. Tonight, we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!”
That simply smells like bullshit. Thankfully, none of us have to endure such studio gibberish since the release of the unrated cut. Caesar should remain both hero and villain.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes cannot simply be dismissed as a cash cow sequel. Not since the first film has an entry in the series been more concerned with the morality of the American culture. It’s a chastising film for sure, and it certainly bumps against our modern notions of decency, but the uglier this series can get the more honest it feels. The entire franchise offers its audience an opportunity to question our place on this planet, and the legacy we want to leave our children.