April 01, 2013

BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES Closes The Franchise With A Whimper

"One day, you are going to be as tall as a king."

Oh how the mighty have fallen.

This was by far my least favorite of all the Planet Of The Apes films.  Beneath is pretty terrible, but at least it's an interesting sort of terrible.  It's got that fantastic underground set, weird mutant make-up, a totally unhinged 20 minutes from Charleton Heston and one of the most batshit crazy endings of any movie ever.  Plus it set the stage perfectly for Escape From Planet Of The Apes, easily my favorite of the entire run.  Battle had plenty of potential, set in the early days of Caesar's ape civilization after man's cities have been destroyed and the two species still struggle for dominance over the Earth.  Unfortunately what we get is a terrifically dull story that looks like it was largely shot in the director's back yard.

Even though it's only been a few short years since his revolution and the fall of mankind, Caesar is no longer the only talking ape in the world.  He and Lisa (Natalie Trundy, also back for her fourth Ape movie) are now married with a precocious son named Cornelius, whose best friend is played by future Animal House director John Landis.  Hell, Caesar isn't even the smartest ape in town anymore, as that honor goes to Virgil (played by musician Paul Williams), an orangutan scientist who speaks with verbosity and posits theories about the nature of time and parallel universes.  Humans and apes live and work together in Caesar's somewhat idyllic village although the gorillas, lead by the simple-minded aggressor General Aldo (Claude Akins), are thirsty for any excuse to do away with mankind permanently.  When Caesar heads off to the smoldering city to find information about his parents, he inadvertently brings an army of angry "malformed" survivors chasing after him, determined to strike vengeance against the one they blame for humanity's downfall.  Aldo uses the situation to his advantage, attacking young Cornelius to distract Caesar and seizing the village's armory in an attempt to wrestle control of their fledgling society.

The biggest crime committed by Battle For The Planet Of The Apes is that it feels incredibly small.  The thing to keep in mind is that Fox had been churning these movies out on more or less a yearly basis, and while they kept making a decent profit, each film's budget got progressively smaller.  The primary victim of these cutbacks was the iconic makeup work conceived by John Chambers.  It's as if they spent half the make-up budget solely on Roddy McDowell, leaving the majority of the cast stuck behind low-grade gorilla masks that don't really allow for a wide range of facial response.  Similarly, the humans discovered living in ruin are repeatedly described as mutants, although there is only the slightest of makeup to indicate any deformity.  It's nothing like the marvelously weird creatures we saw three films prior.  While these "mutants" live in a non-descript series of underground rooms and corridors, the apes live in a collection of tree houses and wooden huts in the nearby woods.  There are no real structures to speak of and the whole thing feels very cheap, like Fox was trying to see just how little they could spend and still get away with a watchable movie.

The one thing that hasn't declined in quality is Roddy McDowell's performance.  In fact, I'd argue that he's better here than he is in Conquest.  Instead of spending half the movie mute and pretending to be a normal ape, now he is the revered intellectual leader, the man with not only the smarts to shape a new civilization, but the pathos and charisma to make it a society worth fighting for.  Like McDowell, writer Paul Dehn is back for the fourth time and he rightfully knows how strong of an asset McDowell truly is, so we get to see many different sides of our favorite ape: benevolent king, curious explorer, concerned father, and tactical general.  Whenever McDowell is not on camera the movie suffers dramatically.

The only other stand-out is Paul Williams, who is endlessly entertaining simply because we never forget that we're watching the man who wrote songs for The Muppets essentially dressed as one.  The early 70s was the height of Williams's popularity; the guy was downright ubiquitous, both as an actor and as a singer/songwriter.  In fact, to promote the film he went on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show (he was a very frequent guest) and sang in full ape make-up, smoking a cigarette and sitting at an Italian restaurant table.  (Seriously, this happened.)  The rest of the cast is nothing to write home about.  The "mutants" are led by Severn Darden as Kolp, the man who had previously tortured Caesar in Conquest and his since been promoted to Governor.  He's not particularly bad (although most of his dialogue is) so much as he just feels like the watered down alternative to bringing back Don Murray's over-the-top mugging as Governor Breck.  Similarly, cool black guy MacDonald is still around, but now he's played by another actor.  After a while, the whole movie starts to feel like nothing more than a series of unfortunate compromises.

There's one interesting thread that I seems implied but never actively discussed.  In Escape, Cornelius tells the Presidential commission that the first ape who ever spoke was named Aldo, and that his first word was "No," the simplest act of rebellion imaginable.  Are we to believe that, in a world in which Cornelius and Zira never traveled back in time and give birth to Caesar, that General Aldo would have been the forefather of the ape civilization that Taylor would encounter thousands of years later?  It's hard to tell.  I'm going to choose to believe that's the case, as it makes for the sole truly compelling storyline in the whole movie.  This version of Aldo is an illiterate bundle of rage who literally puts all the humans in a cage.  It therefore makes sense that, with Aldo calling the shots, humans would be degraded into mute prey after a few thousand years.  Instead, we get a glimpse at the future of Caesar's remade world, in which The Lawgiver teaches a classroom of both apes and humans alike.  Considering that the first two ape films never refer to Caesar, only The Lawgiver as the founder of their culture, I suppose one could make the argument that the apes could still come to rule humanity.  Then again, considering this franchise's penchant for ignoring it's own history there seems little point in performing mental backflips just to make the fifth movie match up with the first.

All in, I've truly enjoyed the Planet Of The Apes franchise.  Yes, it's really uneven and I'm honestly not sure if I'll ever watch Conquest or Battle again unless I'm re-watching the whole series, but each movie has it's own brand of goofy charm that, at the end of the day, I just can't resist.  I adore the recent prequel Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and I'm really excited at some of the casting for the upcoming Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes.  (Ape Judy Greer!)  I've even decided to give Burton's attempt another shot, having seen it once in the theater, hating it and never revisiting it again.  I don't have high hopes.

Planet Of The Apes was the perfect way to kick off this whole project, which is now officially one month old.  In fact, I really loved having an Ape movie to look forward to at the end of every week, so I'm thinking of picking up another series this week.  There are a lot of horror franchises I've largely ignored over the years, but I want to try something else first.  Maybe sci-fi?  Finding a sci-fi series I've never seen seems like a formidable challenge.


Title: Battle For The Planet Of The Apes
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Roddy McDowell, Paul Williams, Claude Akins, Natalie Trundy, Severn Darden
Year Of Release: 1973
Viewing Method: Digital Copy

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