The monkeys strike back
In the previous entry, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the series was established as a vicious circle. Seemingly, the apes’ travel back in time was destined to make the future planet ruled by them come to pass. However, we can see that it didn’t have to turn out that way. The thinly veiled social commentary in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is as simple as connect-the-dots.
In 1972, race riots caused by hundreds of years of oppression were still very fresh in people’s minds, and the racism that helped shape such tragedies is still unfortunately a part of our society. The ruling class of humans, acting out of fear of the apes, go far overboard in their efforts to keep them from taking over. The cruelty of their human masters has the enslaved apes straining at their chains. All they need is a leader to start a revolution.
We find the grown Baby Milo (Roddy McDowall), now called “Caesar” (with the usual mispronounced soft “c”), still in the care of circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban). Armando has brought Caeser to the big city for the first time, so that he can witness first hand the enslavement of his kind, and better understand the importance of hiding his own intelligence. However, Caeser becomes so enraged by what he sees – especially after Armando is captured and tortured by the fascist government (lead locally by Don Taylor as Governor Breck) – that he begins to plot in secret to strike back at the oppressors.
The fact that jungle-captured apes are able to organize and take on a modern empire – even beginning to speak by the end – can’t be explained by the simple training shown, and the film doesn’t bother to provide any further explanation. Perhaps the plague that wiped out dogs and cats, and made simian pets popular, also provoked a mutation in certain primates.
Before such films as The Empire Strikes Back, it was accepted that sequels rarely earn as much their predecessors, and so it was common practice to cut the budget of each succeeding sequel. Conquest looks especially cheap. Just about every scene seems to have been shot on the same few sets and locations. The fact that almost everyone wears some kind of uniform makes the symbolism easier, while keeping the costume budget low.
Many feel that the serious treatment afforded this entry makes it the best in the series, but the world just seems like too small a place in this movie. Aside from some of the larger scale action scenes, one could imagine a stage production of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes – maybe even the musical imagined by The Simpsons.
The series breaks with tradition here, for once hiring a director whose reputation hadn’t been made in television. J. Lee Thompson was a seasoned veteran of all kinds of films, from his action blockbuster The Guns of Navarone, to the suspense thriller Cape Fear, to the wacky comedy John Goldfarb Please Come Home. He brings a real sense of control and focus to the project, though in places it seems obvious he could have benefited from a few extra dollars.
Like the other films in the limited edition “Evolution” box set, Fox has made all the films in the series available on simply gorgeous THX mastered widescreen DVDs. Unlike Escape, here Fox returns to providing full Surround sound. Those that pick up the discs shouldn’t expect the kind of lavish extras on each disc that accompanied Fox’s Alien discs. That kind of deluxe treatment has been relegated to a 2-hour documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes on an extra sixth disc included in the box set. However, the trailers for all five Apes films are included here.