Well, it’s official. The evidence I have received is overwhelming and definitive. Bow down before Planet of the Apes, for it is the superior franchise. My weekly viewings of the series have been very positive experiences. The first is a bona fide classic. The second is one of the crazier science-fiction movies out there. The third was, well, also super weird, but also really good. But number four cinches it. The fourth movie in the series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, is probably one of the best yet. That’s four out of five movies in a series that are not just watchable but enjoyable. Not just enjoyable but pretty good at times. Four out of five! I haven’t seen five yet, so it might be good too. Even if Battle of the Planet of the Apes is a completely irredeemable shit pile, that would still make five good movies out of seven (if you count remakes and reboots). This is unprecedented. This is an incredible ratio of good movies to bad – it blows any other science-fiction franchise out of the water!
Bow down before your ape overlords!
Actually in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes the apes aren’t overlords, rather they’re lorded over. Set twenty years after the previous movie, Conquest follows through on the time paradox established. The movie follows Caesar (played by Roddy McDowall), the child of the two time-travelling intelligent apes from the previous movie. The government thinks Caesar is dead, when, in actuality, he’s hiding with the Circus Owner from the previous film. In the twenty years since, a disease has spread that has killed off all dogs and cats. Apes became popular household pets, but because they could be trained to do household tasks they’ve essentially become slaves. This is all canon, as established in the very first movie.
Caesar, while walking with his friend and owner, finds most of this information out as we do. He’s completely taken aback by the sight of uniformed police officers routinely beating apes in the street. It doesn’t take long before he blows his cover and shouts at the cops. They take Mr. Circus into custody and Caesar flees, hiding among his kind.
This means participating in the torturous conditioning slave-apes go through. Training includes severe audio and visual overstimulation, flamethrowers, electrocution, and bananas. It’s pretty nightmarish, and watching Caesar use his intelligence to play the system while also feigning ignorance is fascinating. While all this is going on, Circus Man is being interrogated. The cops are fairly convinced Caesar spoke, and the owner of the ape conditioning centre is pretty freaked out over the chance that the ape uprising hasn’t been prevented. The interrogation scenes are casual at first. Caesar does okay too; he goes through the conditioning with ease. He’s so clearly a superior specimen that they actually use him as breeding stock.
Eventually things start to go badly. Circus Owner, when strapped to a futuristic polygraph, throws himself out of the window rather than give up Caesar. It’s unclear how intentional the dying portion of this action is, but die he does. Caesar gets auctioned to the men looking for him, the same men responsible for killing his pseudo-father figure. Despite the one human (who, of course, is black, because Slavery Message) being rather nice, Caesar is fairly peeved by all this. There’s a really nifty scene in here where Caesar is given an encyclopaedia to randomly select a name. He finds Caesar, obviously, and when he does, the royal connotation is sarcastically remarked upon. Caesar just keeps his finger on the word and stares down the dude. For a really long time too. It’s super cool.
It isn’t long before Caesar starts planning a rebellion. He gets apes to meet in this secret room and bring him weapons they’ve stolen from humans. They bring him knives and hatchets and torches and guns and a tea strainer (Caesar nods at the ape who brings this, then shakes his head and throws it away while his back is turned). They also bring in order slips for various items, and Caesar, being smart and all, is easily capable of adding his own requests to the slip.
But trouble is brewing. The search for the intelligent apes bears fruit, and Caesar is sent for. That same kind human from before helps him escape. It doesn’t actually do much good though. The cops shut down the streets and find him with ease. He is captured and tortured until he talks. Not talks about anything in particular mind you, just proves he can talk. The torture scene feels long and graphic for a PG movie about talking apes. If there’s anything that can be said about this series it’s the way they’re so willing to present the audience with legitimately disturbing scenes.
The same nice human strikes again though! He shuts off the power to the electro-shock thing on Caesar’s head, and Caesar is quick thinking enough to feign death by electrocution at the appropriate time. He makes a brave escape and reunites with his rebellious ape comrades.
Their uprising is glorious. It feels so thrilling and deserved, and watching this ragtag bunch of apes armed with household supplies taking down a tightly organized militant group of guards in riot gear is only the best thing ever. The action is actually pretty good. It’s definitely better than anything in Beneath the Planet of the Apes by a mile. None of it’s amazing, but because it feels so earned and because it’s at least visually interesting (even when poorly presented), it makes for a great sequence. Flamethrowers and gorillas are pretty cool, but it only proves how much of a difference characters you actually like make.
Things start to go downhill as Caesar switches into full-on dictator mode. That same nice human gets concerned and starts having a fairly cliched “you’re taking this too far” moment with Caesar. Caesar gives an incredibly prescient speech about the future subjugation of humanity – all sorts of things about the apes waiting until people get nuked and then taking over and enslaving them. It’s honestly a little too specific to the events we know are coming, but Roddy McDowall sells it, transforming it into a pretty great moment. One of the apes speaks out though. A female ape who has been eyeing Caesar this whole time looks at him and hoarsely imitates the word she probably heard the most – “No.” Caesar has a change of heart and decides to rule with compassion. And then the movie ends. It’s a great final scene. And the fact that it’s the end totally justifies the slightly over-the-top speech. “The ending is the conceit” after all.
It’s a pretty fucking strong movie, and it’s the fourth movie in a series about talking apes. This proves we couldn’t possibly be in the darkest timeline.
Think about it though. Does any other science fiction franchise have such a wonderful track record? Star Wars and Star Trek have way more bad entries than good. Planet of the Apes ratio remains supreme! Hell we’re four movies in and the series is still consistently attempting to tackle political themes. They’re not always examined particularly well, but the attempt still marks them as a cut above most of the competition.
Here’s hoping Battle isn’t a terrible note to end the original series on…