After the excellent Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, I couldn’t decide if I was more, or less, concerned about the quality of Battle for the Planet of the Apes. See Conquest established that, no matter how terrible this movie would be, the Apes series was clearly one of the all-time great franchises. It’s probably the single strongest SF franchise of all time. Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the last of the original five films, could’ve been terrible and the franchise’s position could’ve still remained uncontested. But if Battle for the Planet of the Apes had been great? Even if it was mediocre but as entertaining as Beneath the Planet of the Apes? Well then the Planet of the Apes franchise would’ve been just ridiculously superior to just about anything else ever.
Unfortunately Battle for the Planet of the Apes wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. It’s the first of the Apes movies to completely lack any kind of notably spectacular high-concept. There are no underground psychic mutants, no time travelling apes, no ape torture cities, no glorious rebellions, no tonally surprising baby-murders, and no hallucinatory images of burning ape idols. It’s a pretty safe movie compared to the first four, content merely with shading in a little bit more of the continuity. It feels almost self-congratulatory – “Didn’t we flesh this world out well? See here’s the origin of this one tiny portion of the continuity; look how it ties in to the last movie in an unexpected way.” I actually like that the world is tight and the evolution of it is so internally consistent, but because this movie never offers anything new, it lacks spark.
The movie takes place after the revolution shown in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. The humans have nuked themselves right off the face of the planet and the apes have survived and established a society. Tree houses and philosophical musings abound – the true signs of a utopian civilization. Caesar is still King, but since we’ve last seen them, the rest of the apes have all learned how to speak and generally behave way more like humans than they could in the last movie. It strikes me that the timeline of this movie would make more sense if they’d had Roddy McDowall play the descendant of Caesar. He’s already played his own son in this series, so why not his own grandson? Suddenly the speaking apes and post-apocalyptic humans would make a little more sense. Especially when Caesar is the only (non-villainous) character to return. This movie pulls a complete Beneath the Planet of the Apes and casts actors who look a lot like the two main humans from the last movie. Then they claim to be siblings or something equally ridiculous. Again – calling them grandchildren solves this problem.
The plot follows Caesar, now a peaceful leader and a father, as he tries to find out more about his parents. Given that the series already spent three movies on Zira and Cornelius, this is a rather unexciting prospect. What’s far more interesting is the new society Caesar’s built. Humans are deeply subservient to Caesar, which is really weird. At least in the theatrical version of Conquest Caesar decidedly comes down against enslaving humans. We get to see a little of this world, perhaps most notably the apes getting taught how to write by a human. This generates some conflict in the community and it’s generally pretty interesting. Perhaps there’s a better movie to be mined from these concepts.
But Caesar, a philosophizing orang-utan, and one loyal human set off to investigate the remnants of New York City for documents pertaining to Cornelius and Zira. What they don’t expect to find are mutated survivors. These survivors aren’t quite as far gone as the ones in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and they’re not psychic. Really they’re just mean and scarred. They’re led by the angry police officer from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. The apes arrive in their ruined city and they get pretty ticked off and nervous. In fairness, Cornelius and his buds are armed, and recently led a rebellion against the human race, but nevertheless we are to believe the mutants are slightly crazy and consequently start shooting pretty instantly. What follows is roughly an eternity of apes and humans winding their way through pitch-black corridors shooting at each other. It’s really not that fun, or tense, or even interesting. It does end eventually and the apes go back to their home. This is just about the last time any of this hunt for Cornelius and Zira related information matters.
The real plot comes in the form of a two-pronged threat to Caesar’s town. Some of the apes Caesar rules over are getting rebellious, and they are starting to move against him. When Caesar’s son overhears their scheming he is thrown from a tree and left at the edge of death. Well not thrown. One of the gorillas uses a saw to cut the branch he’s standing on, and he falls. The other threat comes from the mutants, who are now angry at the apes and want to reclaim the earth. The apes, despite only being a few years past a violent uprising, are uncomfortable with violence. Caesar alone has to undergo strange philosophical debates to even get guns. The apes just don’t like killing things, not even humans, and especially not other apes.
Caesar essentially abandons his town to stay by his son’s side through all this. Meanwhile the mutants – armed with tanks, guns, and a bus – get closer. The gorillas stage a coup, locking the peaceful humans away and raiding the weapons stockpile. This is bad. But also convenient, given the trouble they’re about to run into. Caesar eventually does his thing and regains control of the situation.
Then there’s a fight scene.
It’s almost a cool one too. Actually, scratch that, it is cool. It’s just not particularly dramatic. Past the image of apes with guns fighting post-apocalyptic humans it doesn’t have a ton to offer. Even when Caesar bellows “Fight like apes now” and they start going toe-to-toe with the mutants sans weapons it never quite connects the way it should. We don’t actually care about these characters or the outcome that much. But apes and guns and explosions look cool, so it doesn’t feel like a complete waste of time. The leader of the mutants escapes, threatening to establish an underground kingdom that will fight the apes later in time. Much like the ending of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes it’s a little too prescient. Then more fighting! The apes win, obviously. Then Caesar is faced with the fact that his son has died and an ape is to blame.
Apes don’t kill one another, so the crowd reacts…harshly. It’s actually a pretty creepy scene. Hordes of apes surround the guilty gorilla and start to chant, “Ape does not kill ape.” Caesar chases the gorilla up a tree. The apes keep chanting. They keep climbing higher up the tree. It’s the only legitimate moment of tension in the whole film. Caesar grabs at the gorilla and he falls from the tree and dies – a classic attempt at granting the protagonist vengeance without actually making him a murderer. Given that this is a franchise with onscreen baby-murder, world wide atomic destruction, and the occasionally graphic headshot, this feels like a pretty weak resolution.
Caesar then gets to go through the exact same character arc he went through at the end of Conquest. The humans shouldn’t be slaves; they should be equals! This “resolution” is wildly ineffective. For one thing the movie never actually made us care about the humans. For another Caesar came to this exact same realization at the end of the last film. Plus we’ve seen the first two movies; we know this is doomed to fail. But the film can’t even muster a proper sense of irony or futility to accompany this moment. It just falls flat.
And thus ends the original five Planet of the Apes films.
It’s not a terrible ending, or a terrible movie. It’s definitely the fifth best film though. It’s the one that offers the fewest incentives to rewatch it. No great filmmaking, no crazy premises, not really that entertaining. The others all have something, or many somethings, that elevate them. Battle for the Planet of the Apes doesn’t even try for a grand theme the way the others did. There’s some general social concern, but not really a boldly overstated political statement the way the others have, and that’s pretty sad. It’s not nearly so bad as to kill my newfound love for the series, but I was hoping it would be, at the very least, more interesting.
In case you’re curious here’s how I would rank the original Apes films:
Planet of the Apes: It’s clearly the best. Entertaining, political, well made, still terribly affecting. A great movie, deserving of the place it’s taken in popular culture. It’s iconic for a reason.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes: This is a pretty close second. The filmmaking is not as top-notch as the first film but everything else is wicked. It’s an excellent science fiction film with great characters, action, and a point.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes: It’s definitely the weird black sheep of the franchise – a weird comedy that actually sticks the transition from apes in funny bathrobes to baby-murder. It’s so weird and audacious, and so perfectly achieves everything it attempts, that I have to rate it above….
Beneath the Planet of the Apes: This movie is kind of a mess, but it’s such an entertaining, nutty mess. You couldn’t care less about the main characters, most of the fight scenes are garbage, and it doesn’t really make a lick of sense. It’s also intensely entertaining.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes: Its biggest crime is being boring and safe.
Yes, ranking things is generally useless clickbait-y oversimplification. But I also find it a genuinely interesting mental exercise. It forces you to actually think of things in terms of objective quality, something critics are often resistant to (separate, longer complaint). Plus when examining a franchise like this it only seems natural.
One theory put forward with regularity – Rise of the Planet of the Apes will resemble Battle for the Planet of the Apes more than any of the other original series. There are definitely a lot of similarities. Caesar leads an ape-centric society after the downfall of humanity. Then the peaceful society comes into contact and conflict with survivors of the nuclear war. If I recall there’s even a bus and a tank in the (excellent) trailer. This is actually pretty exciting to me. It’s clear a lot of this film’s problems could be smoothed over and the basic premise used to create something vastly superior. Rise is clearly going to be a little more grounded – the apes haven’t all magically developed the power of speech, the humans aren’t on their way to becoming psychic mutants, and there probably won’t even be one loudly philosophical orang-utan.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes may be disappointing, but the franchise reigns supreme. It’s just fucking better than any other science fiction franchise out there. It’s also more fun than most of them. Plus two of the movies aren’t just interesting or fun flicks about super intelligent apes; they’re legitimately great. Four out of five films in a series being this watchable? This entertaining? This interesting? It’s a pretty great series, even if it ends on a bland note.
But rest assured my reviews won’t end on a bland note! I still have to cover Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and afterwards… if I can find the strength of will… Tim Burton’s attempt at a remake of the first film. Enjoy the results of the disturbing OCD that compels me to complete the entirety of a series.