The first of the Planet of the Apes films that I saw on STV as a Saturday night movie in 1981, J Lee Thompson’s film for 20th Century Fox was part of a wild run of franchise pics on a man vs monkey theme. While the first POTA was a good take on a novel by Pierre Boulle (Bridge on the River Kwai) with historical allusions about the dark potential in man and animal nature, the subsequent films are all very different. The second is awful, the third is ingenious, the fourth leans into the political and the fifth is something of a reheated dinner. But leaning into the political was a dangerous game in the mid-70’s, particularly in hindsight, and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes has some genuine virtues.
I’ve enjoyed visiting places first seen in the movies; the setting here is the far future of 1983, and producers decided to use Century City, a brutalist space-age mall partly built on the old 20th Century Fox lot in mid-town LA. I lived in and mooched around there in several different apartments while writing, grabbing Subway sandwiches on rainy days or driving to the nearby Ralph’s for sustinance and wheatgrass juice, and its every bit the kind of inhospitable, lunar landscape that it appears to be here. Sparsely populated and towered over by faceless sky-scrapers, it’s an ideal backdrop for a solid slice of dystopian/paranoid fantasy; after a virus kills off all of our cats and dogs, apes become man’s pets, or rather slaves. Ape-about-town Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) tries to avoid becoming a political figure, but can’t resist getting involved, leading a rebellion against their human oppressors.
Oddly, the first film in the modern trilogy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, covers roughly the same story, although without the time-travel elements that are amped down here. But there’s something primal about seeing the apes rejecting their menial tasks like shoe-shining and immediately start to attack the riot police which reflects 70’s preoccupations with race in a disturbing way. With McDowall behind a mask and hangover character circus–owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban) quickly dispensed with, the central figure here is Don Murray as the Governor who sees his city on fire at the ‘birth of the planet of the apes’, and his gift for using torture and brutality to suppress dissent means he pretty much deserves what’s coming to him.
Even for a dystopian/paranoid fantasy, Conquest of the Planets of the Apes is bleak, uncompromising stuff; the ending was re-shot to offer some scant comfort, but there’s little doubt here that society is doomed, conflict is inevitable, and there’s no way for anyone in this film to accommodate their enemies. Lee Thompson does better with the action that the characters, but students of how cinema reflects the past when it predicts the future should take a look at the grim past-future imagined here.