Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) / Sci Fi-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG for violence (most definitely PG-13 or possibly R today, especially the unrated edition)
Running Time: 88 min.
Cast: Roddy McDowall, Ricardo Montalban, Don Murray, Hari Rhodes, Natalie Trundy, Severn Darden, Lou Wagner, John Randolph
Small role: Gordon Jump
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Screenplay: Paul Dehn
Review published August 13, 2014
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is the fourth installment of the original five-movie Planet of the Apes story arc. This one's set 20 years in the future (1991 to be specific), where we find Caesar (McDowall, Circle of Iron), the son of Cornelius and Zira, an adult chimpanzee still under the care of the good-hearted circus owner, Armando (Montalban, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). It's a future in which humans have adopted simians as pets due to a plague that has eradicated every dog and cat from the planet. Soon, the apes are trained to be more than companions; they become slaves to humans, and are often mistreated as part of their 'conditioning'. Having to hold back his ability to speak and read to keep his cover from those who see him as the seed for the bleak future foretold in the early 1970s, Caesar soon feels that ape-dom can no longer tolerate such terrible conditions, and it's time to fight back against their human oppressors once and for all.
Screenwriter Paul Dehn (Goldfinger, Murder on the Orient Express) returns for this sequel, the first to have a returning creative force at the forefront, to deliver what some might argue is the best of the sequels. It's certainly a more serious and less intentionally campy effort than Escape to the Planet of the Apes had been, and it does continue the storyline that Dehn had set forth at the end of its predecessor, further cementing the series into what appears to be Earth's inevitable fate toward ape dominance. It's the darkest in tone of the Apes films, though not nearly the bleakest in scope. Its uptick in bloody violence would go on to earn the film the first and only PG rating of the series, though that may have more to do with shifting ideas on how the MPAA would approach its G-rated fare.
The budget is noticeably lower his time around, with the majority of the action set in one central location, here the Century City Shopping Center in Los Angeles, plus other exterior shots around the UC Irvine campus. The only recognizable name at the time is returning player Roddy McDowall, who plays the son of his prior character of Cornelius. Taking over the director's chair is J. Lee Thompson (Mackenna's Gold, Cape Fear), who had been considered for 1968's original Planet of the Apes.
Perhaps the weakest element of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is its main premise. It's difficult to believe that there is a virus that would wipe out all of the dogs and cats of the world. It's even more difficult to believe that humans, in an effort to supplant these domesticated beasts, would resort to taking in apes as pets. No, not cute little monkeys -- apes as large as humans (why the non-Caesar simians look like the apes of 2000 years from now in the course of only 20 years is anyone's guess). What's most difficult to believe about this aspect is that 20 years prior, the world populace already had a scare in which apes from the future proclaim that humanity's reign will end thanks to the apes, so to think that this knowledge would be largely ignored by humans willing to train apes into being as smart and skilled as possible seems a pretty big implausibility pill to swallow.
However, the larger commentary on racism, particularly on slavery and inhuman treatment, is robust, as human guards in what appears to be Nazi uniforms lay down the law in a most iron-fisted way. In the midst of the fight for civil rights, and at a time when Blaxploitation films were in full stride, here we have a film that delves into the very same themes, though in the guise of apes instead of our fellow man. While the fact that apes are the proxies for African-Americans might seem a bit dodgy, the makers of the film circumvent the claims of overt racism by making the most sympathetic of the humans, outside of the Hispanic Armando, a very smart and savvy African-American named MacDonald (Rhodes, Coma), who works in the governor's chamber of power. MacDonald commiserates with Caesar's plight because he recognizes the evils of abject oppression all too well.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, while still a pale comparison to the 1968 masterwork, is a respectable effort at a sequel nonetheless, and should meet well for those who've stuck around through the second and third films without getting turned off to further adventures. What it lacks in budget and basic plausibility, it makes up for with decent acting and some choice food for thought, offering a vision of a future world growing increasingly more mad by the day.
-- The originally intended cut that got the studio nervous enough to re-edit the film to make Caesar more sympathetic and compassionate to his human oppressors was released unrated on Blu-ray, along with the original theatrical edition.
-- Followed by Battle for the Planet of the Apes.
©2014 Vince Leo