Written by Paul Dehn
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
While the original Planet of the Apes movie is a classic, and the first two sequels not bad as sequels go, with the fourth installment in the series Conquest of the Planet of the Apes we start getting into why didn’t they quit while they were ahead territory.
The film is set about twenty years after the end of the previous sequel, Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Cornelius and Zira, apes who had traveled back in time to 20th Century earth, then been brutally murdered by a government agent in a vain attempt to change the future. Their baby was believed to have died with them. What the government didn’t know was that their baby was switched with that of a circus gorilla. “Caeser” was left under the care of a kindly circus owner, Armando.
The story picks up here with Armando and Caeser traveling into Los Angeles proper. In a long monologue meant to give the viewer the backstory of the last twenty years, Armando reminds Caeser not to show off his intelligence. A mysterious disease killed off all the human’s beloved pets eight years ago. Simians, with their biological similarity to humans, were immune. People began using them in place of their pets – something which graduated into slavery since simians were intelligent enough to learn to perform chores around the house.
That intelligence is also showing up in other ways as the “slaves” begin to revolt by not performing tasks up to par or outright disobedience. This is despite harsh action taken against any simian found to be disobedient.
Armando cautions Caeser that if the authorities realize who – and what – he is, they will kill him.
This all takes place in the first ten minutes of the film, setting the stage for the remainder of the story. I found it completely unbelievable that Armando would have had waited to have this discussion with Caeser until they actually ventured into the city, rather than cautioning him before they departed. It would be too risky for the two of them to carry on a conversation where they could be overheard.
Of course, Caeser speaks when he should not. Although Armando attempts to cover for him, the police attempt to drag the two in for more extensive questioning. They manage an escape at which time Armando tells Caeser to lose himself inside the ape population while he turns himself in.
If the story sounds hard to believe up until now, it gets worse. For twenty years, no one thought about the possibility of the babies being switched. No one came up with the idea that Caeser could possibly be alive. No one looked for him amongst the population of the zoos and circuses. Yet suddenly the Governor – who doesn’t seem like he could add two and two together without help – figures everything out. This sets off a chain of events which results in a ape-slave uprising.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes plays on a common theme of human fear causing all of the problems. The humans are afraid of the apes as they gain their intelligence. They stop treating them as beloved pets and instead turn into slavemasters. It’s no accident that the one official who helps Caeser is African-American.
The problem is that this movie attempts to fill in the story parts missing from the first three films. In doing so, the script becomes very uneven. We have long monologues explaining history and the way things are to the viewer. The Los Angeles Police Dept. is dressed (and acting) like jack-booted Nazis, something I find hard to believe could occur in such a short time period without a great deal of protest.
The characters are also uneven as well. Someone like the Governor doesn’t seem so swift, has a lightbulb moment, then goes back to being not so swift again.
Roddy McDowell does an admiral job as Caeser under all that ape makeup. Since Caeser is the only simian who speaks, the others must convey everything with body language and eyes. It’s hard to believe that Caeser could direct a revolt with just a few glances; that the apes would know how to act organized when they haven’t had any sort of organization up until now.
Ricardo Montalban is back as Armando. Previously he was given little screentime and was believable in the role of a circus owner as he overacted at the right points. Now as he is faced with an inquisition by the authorities, it’s hard to believe that he didn’t give everything away long before this; his protestations are way too earnest and overdone.
The biggest problem of all, however, is that all of this is taking place on the west coast. In the first film, Ape City is surrounded by a “Forbidden Zone” and is most definitely on the east coast. How would these apes get from one side of the country to the other after a nuclear war (which hasn’t occurred yet) through an area that appears to be mostly desert? And why would they? It just doesn’t make sense. The solution would have been to set this on the east coast, but for whatever reason the produces chose not to do that.
The producers should have quit while they were ahead and left it to the imagination what occurs after Cornelius and Zira were killed in Escape from the Planet of the Apes and we knew their ape-child was still alive.
Written by Paul Dehn