Monday, October 25, 2010

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) & Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) & Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) & Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

          When Chuck Heston screamed at the half-buried Statue of Liberty during the conclusion of Planet of the Apes (1968), what seemed like one of the great twist endings in sci-fi history was actually the launching pad for an interesting but short-lived movie series, probably because producer Arthur P. Jacobs was eager to milk a hit after taking a bath on the notorious turkey Doctor Dolittle (1967). Demonstrating that a sequel was neither organic nor planned, Heston is a minor presence in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which strangely pushes the titular primates to the sidelines in favor of a cult of underground mutants worshipping an unexploded nuclear bomb; even more egregiously, Beneath is the only picture in the series that doesn’t feature Roddy McDowall in the cast. Nonetheless, Beneath has some memorable loose-nuke paranoia, and Chuck brightens the third act by showing up to flex his pecs and grit his teeth. If you go Beneath, by the way, stick through to the ending, which is spectacularly cynical.
          Jacobs more or less rebooted the series with Escape from the Planet of the Apes, which kinda ignores the previous film by reprising beloved ape characters Cornelius (McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) from the original picture. The duo travels back in time from their ape-dominated future Earth to present-day 1970s Earth, where they’re perceived as a threat to man’s dominance of the planet. Escape is flat and talky compared to the rest of the series, but it introduces the entertaining human character Armando (Ricardo Montalban) and features a denouement that’s both exciting and depressing.
          The jewel in the crown of the ’70s Apes pictures is unquestionably Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which boasts a taut script about slavery and rebellion, zesty performances by McDowall and Montalban, and genuinely scary sequences of civil unrest that director J. Lee Thompson reportedly modeled after news footage of the 1964 Watts riots. McDowall actually plays the son of his character in the previous Apes pictures, and he brings previously unseen grit and rage to his portrayal of an, ahem, guerilla leader; he also benefits from a methodical story that believably evolves him from pacifist to revolutionary. Adding even more flava is the ingenious use of a then-new office plaza in what’s now known as Century City, California, for the primary location, because Fox audaciously transforms its corporate backyard into a futuristic battleground. Yet another virtue of the movie is a charismatic performance by journeyman African-American actor Hari Rhodes, of Daktari fame—he’s commanding and intense as the only human besides Armando to evade the apes’ wrath. FYI, the highly recommended extended cut of Conquest that debuted on Blu-Ray (and the Fox Movie Channel) in 2008 ups the violence quotient and deepens the movie’s theme of racial friction.
          Predictably, Battle for the Planet of the Apes is an anticlimax, mostly because it should have picked up exactly where Conquest ended. Instead, it takes place years later and features a long, slow buildup to a poorly staged fight between a nasty human armada and a fractious ape community. Seeing John Huston in primate drag at the beginning and end of the picture is a hoot, though (he speaks to the camera in wraparound bits). Oh, and don’t be fooled if you come across listings for Back to the Planet of the Apes or Forgotten City of the Planet of the Apes (both 1974); they’re slapdash re-edits of scenes from the disposable Apes TV series that ran for one season.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes: FUNKY
Escape from the Planet of the Apes: FUNKY
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes: GROOVY
Battle for the Planet of the Apes: LAME


Tommy Ross said...

I love all five movies for various reasons. 2 and 5 are probably my favorites, then 4, and 3, but I'm APE-crazy for all these APE movies!

Dale said...

I too am a shameless Ape freak. I love 'em good and bad, warts and all. My folks took too see them all back in the day. I appreciate the balance and restraint you showed in your reviews. Many critics would have been harsher. The things that fascinates me is how generally bleak,even nihilistic the series is(especially Beneath and Conquest,which obsess me the most). Beneath with all it's flaws seems so much to sum up everything about the 60s becoming the 70s. It is indeed freaky but it kills me! It's tawdry,disturbing,frightening on many levels.

Guy Callaway said...

I was one of the many ape-addicted teens who loved these back in the day. Even sat through 'em at an all-day ape-athon. Good times.

Ystafell Gynghori said...

I prefer 'Battle' to the live action television series and the recent C.G.I. prequels.