One major plus point about the classic Planet Of The Apes franchise, regardless of your opinion about the sequels that followed in the original’s wake, is that each movie feels subtlety different. Focusing firmly on key moments of the series’ admittedly batshit crazy timeline, every entry so far has consistently zeroed in on the most depressing events that pepper the convoluted history of a brutal future earth that looks like it must smell like the inside of a circus tent.
The previous film, an effective, joy-destroying highlight known as Escape From The Planet Of The Apes, told of two simian astronauts who had inadvertently escaped back through time and narrowly avoided the nuclear destruction of their world thanks to the mental events of Beneath, the first sequel. As this is a franchise that has vehemently insisted on taking your emotions and positive feelings and body slamming them through a table before pissing in it’s confused face, naturally the film ended with both of its protagonists shot to death with the final revelation that their super-smart offspring had been successfully hidden and will one day bring about the end of man’s reign. Conquest dutifully kicks off by introducing us to an even more cruel world filled with heavy handed social commentary and suffering that once again must have had audiences wondering why they’d bother to pay for popcorn…
It’s been years since time travelling ape couple Zira and Cornelius absorbed more bullets than 50 Cent and Michael Myers combined and their hyper intelligent son, Caesar, has grown under the kindly and parental watch of animal loving zoo owner Armando. Having spent his whole childood sheltered from life in the big cities by growing up in the circus, Caesar is naive to what has been going on as he’s matured to adulthood.
Human society has become a race of Karens; a spoiled and cruel people who has since adopted apes into their households since every dog died on Earth from a mystery virus. However, since starting out as pets (although lets be honest, who the fuck buys a gorilla for a pet?), Apes have have eventually now become a slave class who work as gophers or even in shops doing menial tasks despite a dramatic increase in disobedient behavior and any that stray from their homes or jobs are usually beaten in the street and their owners harshly fined. Part of this increase in independent thought is the brutally violent methods that are utilised in training apes in the first place that involve using torture in ways that would give PETA a myocardial infarction. I’m not entirely sure why it’s considered a good idea to train gorillas to grab a banana by firing a fucking flamethrower at them and why no one has surmised why exactly it’s: A) going to have the desired effect and: B) NOT eventually cause the entire species to snap and revolt like bunch of screeching maniacs.
Unwisely bringing Caesar into this police state to hand out flyers for their circus, Armando is dragged in for questioning when his ape ward vocalises his displeasure at the way his fellow kind are treated in plain sight. As the alarmingly fascist police grill Armando, suspecting his ape to be the infant born of Zira and Cornelius, Caesar questionably hides himself by smuggling himself in with apes on their way to being trained and ends up getting a job with the cruel Governor Breck (way to stay hidden, Caesar…). We know Breck is bad egg because he’s forever wearing a jet black turtleneck and he sneers an awful lot; but his subordinate, a black man by the name of MacDonald, is sympathetic to the Ape’s plight as he sees the direct parallel with America’s history with slavery and eventually sparks up a relationship with the intelligent young ape. His faith in humanity running dangerously on empty Caeser starts to plan a revolution, training and arming the apes from within that eventually threatens spills over into a full blown riot in the streets that will dictate the very future of this planet of the apes.
Of all the movies made in this harsh universe, Conquest is most likely the most nastiest of them all as the film is chiefly preoccupied in offering us an almost endless string of beatings as if we need them to make up our mind that slavery is bad. It’s brutally obvious and it barely can be described as subtext as it takes every opportunity to jab an elbow into our ribs to remind us that this has all happened before WITH PEOPLE, but it’s frantic overplaying of it’s hand actually ends up diluting the message somewhat. If the ruling class maybe were more casual about the atrocities they heap upon the apes, you’d have a much more subtle and effective message but the humans here are cartoonishly sinister with the ruling class of this concrete, dystopian, shithole strutting around in what suspiciously looks like Nazi’s hand me downs. The film almost seems to be excitedly hopping from foot to foot, jabbing it’s fingers at it’s antagonists while shrieking “HUMANS the bad guys! You see? YOU SEE!?”.
But in case we don’t see, the film further rams it’s point home by padding out the brief run time (83 minutes is very short for a sci-fi film about slavery) with endless torture scenes accompanied by a LOT of ape screaming as fire, beatings and even the national grid is enthusiastically used to get these put upon anthropoids to simply serve a glass of water without spilling it. But it’s all so luridly presented you frequently question why the humans are putting in SO much effort to brutalise a species so obviously incapable of doing said tasks – taking the obvious moral issues out of the equation, how on earth can this be even remotely cost efficient?
Now, I while understand that slavery in all it’s forms is obviously barbaric and hideously unnecessary, the fact that the film is supposed to be set in the future (if you can count 1991 as the future, that is) means that the archaic and chaotic methods used for “education” makes it tough to take the moral of the story seriously. Also helping to shoot itself in the foot is that the movie is directly comparing America’s history of slavery with a bunch of people running around in monkey masks and grunting and while I see that it’s intentions are pure – the only sane human voice in the chaos comes from the film’s sole black character – it doesn’t ease any of the well meaning, but still uncomfortable comparisons.
In the dying moments of the film, things are salvaged at the last minute by the single revelation that after years playing the peaceful and sedate Cornelius, Roddy McDowell finally gets to cut lose as his blossoming son, Caesar, and his final, damning speech, where he all but single handedly dooms the human race to a cruel future of unflattering loin cloths is surprisingly powerful as the actor manages to overcome the limits of his make up (his real lips are clearly visible for the entire movie) to unleash all of his pent up rage and frustration while surrounded by smoke and flame.
It’s yet another shockingly downbeat closing which brings the franchise’s depression tally to an impressive 4-0 and it’s probably prudent to mention the two different endings that exist for the film. The originally intended climax featured a far more downbeat ending that was reworked by the studio after it was deemed far too excessive into something that exuded a more hopeful message for it’s theatrical run. As both endings chiefly focused on Caesar’s decision on whether to execute Govenor Brent or not, I have to say I honestly prefer the grimmer of the two denouements as it fits better with the series as a whole.
During this time of BLM and a heightened awareness about social and racial issues, Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes comes across as awkwardly dated and actually manages to fall into many of the racial pitfalls it’s actively trying to speak out against, but taken simply as a continuation of the storyline it does just enough to keep things ticking along for these apes of wrath.