Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Chimpan-A to Chimpan-Z: Ape has killed ape


Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Written by Paul Dehn, John William Corrington, and Joyce Hooper Corrington

Spoilers: high

With Battle For the Planet of the Apes we find ourselves at the point that the series finally ran out of ideas.  There's nothing necessarily dishonorable about thatdelivering a classic original and three great sequels before running out of ideas is nothing for which a franchise ought to be too ashamedbut it can't help but be disappointing.  Those previous four films, though they each had their own individual problems, had always made themselves fascinating: concerning the first Planet of the Apes, nothing more need be said; Beneath the Planet of the Apes not only offered the utter shock of its ending, but the incredible playfulness of its lead-up, burdened with the obligation of an expanded canvas and nonetheless filling it to the edges with cartoonish insanity; Escape From the Planet of the Apes solved the problems that Beneath had created with equally weird means, confronting its refugees from a planet of apes with the pleasures of a fizzy sitcom, and using that to make you feel wretched when it inevitably retrenched into the franchise's nihilism; and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was somehow even more political while retaining its Apes movie weirdness, fulfilling the franchise's dark prophecies and effectively concluding its depressing saga of apes and men with its own beginning.  But now that we've already seen the snake do the trick of eating its own tail, Battle discovers the limits of a flat circle: with it, we find the series bloated with more prequels looking backwards at the Apes universe than movies moving forward within it, and while this had not been any kind of serious problem for two films running, at long last entropy caught up with screenwriter Paul Dehnliterally, since he got too sick to write, and his function was supplemented by the screenwriters of The Omega Man, married couple John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington.  Though, as I've read Dehn's original draft script*, I don't blame them more than I blame Dehn.

We'll get to that; for now, what's important is that entropy caught up with the Apes movies themselves, both in the figurative sense of the franchise's declining box office grosses begetting declining budgets (Battle cost the same $1.7 million Conquest did but doesn't hide it nearly as well), as well as in the stricter sense, because positive entropy is inevitable in any closed system, and this was a franchise that, by definition, couldn't go anywhere.  My initial impulse was to call this a prefiguration of the Apes television showsto declare Battle a simple programmer, the first film you could call "another Planet of the Apes adventure"and that's probably true, but it's a little worse than such innocuous language implies.  Though it's somewhat technically true that Escape and especially Conquest were already "prequels" to PotA, that's never been a word that leaps to my mind to actually use for them.  Battle?  It's prequelling all over, it's prequelling hard, and it doesn't really have much of a purpose other than to fill gaps that nobody could have needed to have filled  (And yet it is still an Apes film, and airtight continuity and sensemaking have never been this franchise's watchwordspreviously, the Apes series' signature was its narrative discontinuities, and the way it leapt without looking into the most outrageous new scenariosso it almost goes without saying that it doesn't fill those gaps particularly well.)  Even this is probably giving it too much credit, though: its truest "purpose" was, undoubtedly, "be a final cash-out for a profitable film series, which most everyone involved had assumed was ending with the previous one," and it feels like it.  I'm not saying a guilty conscience killed Apes producer Arthur Jacobs.  But he died two weeks after it came out.

Hey, at least the like-it-or-lump-it bullshit that was now the ancient custom of Apes sequels continues, though the film is framed in such a way that, if it'd occurred to anyone or if they'd bothered (neither, of course, is true), "bullshit" could've been an actual strength this time, or at least been more forgivable.  For we actually open in 2670, still distant in the future for us but even further from the deep time of PotA, and, as it turns out, that's when the prophetic figure alluded to all the way back then, the Lawgiver (John Huston, who apparently just wanted to see what it was like to wear John Chambers's makeup), invented the apes' religion.  He catches us up with the previous prequels' events, and then proceeds to narrate, to an audience we don't see till the end, the apes' mythology of how Caesar (Roddy McDowall) met the first challenges of his reign.

So now it's twelve years after Conquest2003though there's a lot of fuzziness on this point, some of it extraordinarily sloppy, notably an orangutan who actually says, explicitly, that he was given a specific role by Caesar twenty-seven years ago, and another orangutan who refers to this elder as his teacher, though they were presumably just mute ape slaves together twelve years earlier.  Which brings us to the boldest "do you think any of us give a fuck?" aspect of Battle, which is so enormous it's practically invisible, but could've been explained by the Lawgiver's recourse to fantastical legend if the movie even momentarily seemed like it was contemplating such a thing: these chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, freed a dozen years ago by the messianic son of two chimpanzees from the future, already talk.  They have also already established their species' caste system, as well as their caste uniforms, as they're outfitted in barely-modified costumes from PotA, a film that takes place nearly two thousand years later.  Pierre Boulle's novel did, in fairness, posit a stark stagnation to ape society, but not this stark.  Meanwhile, over the course of these twelve years, where apes have mysteriously acquired all the mechanisms that permit human-like speech, they have established the beginnings of Ape City.  This is to say that, in twelve years, they've managed to slap together a few treehouses, though not nearly enough to shelter everyone in the movie.  As noted, Battle is cheap and, for the first time in this series, really, truly looks it.

Caesar has led his people on a modest exodus into the Angeleno hinterlandsI wonder, now, if Conquest's Ape Mall, played by Century City, was actually in New York, which isn't "a plot hole," but doesn't feel "correct"and the most epochal event in between Conquest and Battle was the nuclear war foretold in PotA, something Dehn had dutifully alluded to in his previous two films, yet always with apparent reluctance and disinterest.  (It seems very obvious, in retrospect, that the war ought to have predated Conquest, thereby lubricating the radical social reorganization it wanted to have occurred between 1973 and 1991, but, in either case, Dehn's original screenplay for Battle did actually include the war.  In this respect the final product is more credible, both for Battle itself and in its connection its immediate predecessor, since it's probably best for Conquest if we imagine the war started the morning after that movie ended, as this is the only way Caesar's ape army doesn't get run over by tanks.  It doesn't help explain why they're not being run over by tanks nowI noted with Conquest that Dehn overestimates the non-human ape population of Earth, but now he's belligerently underestimating how many millions of humans, just in America, would still be aroundand the final screenplay doesn't have a great replacement explanation for how Caesar and friends survived a nuclear war.)

I'm getting bogged down: in these past twelve years, the ape confederation has already begun to crystallize into its PotA form, and its society has grownCaesar's wife Lisa (Natalie Trundy) has borne him a son, Cornelius (Bobby Porter)but, for the present, and in recognition of the kindness and solidarity shown him by MacDonald during his captivity, Caesar has also allowed a small number of humans to persist in his society, led by, well, MacDonald (this is Austin Stoker, since for reasons that sort of make an extrinsic, race optics sense if you squint very hard at them, they didn't simply recast Hari Rhodes's MacDonald, and this man who acts exactly like that MacDonald is actually MacDonald's brother, MacDonald, a fact that isn't clarified until twenty minutes after we've met him; it's unfortunately not hard to imagine why Rhodes might not have felt like returning to this series about, inter alia, American race politics, because neither MacDonald gets to be a character in these films).  Anyway, despite Caesar's semi-enlightened attitude towards his former slaversa small but persistent problem with Battle, which isn't entirely fair to hold against it, is that it's a sequel to its predecessor's more accommodationist theatrical cutthere remains significant friction, for Caesar's humans are still resolutely second-class citizens, given no political power, pushed around, and, especially, forbidden from ever telling any ape "no," which I will credit as something approaching an idea in Dehn et al's screenplay, in how it feels like an ahead-of-its-time (though somewhat over-the-top) satire of woke-y language manipulation.  I would credit it more if it informed more than a single scene, or if it didn't really have to be phrased exactly like that.  Because it is such a distortion of normal speech, the dialogue doesn't actually sweat any negative imperatives that aren't precisely "no," like "don't," "wait," and "stop."

But Caesar's liberal attitude causes even more seething resentment amongst the more reactionary apes, especially the gorillasfor a movie series about racism, it just piles everything onto the gorillasand especially self-proclaimed "General" Aldo (Claude Akins).  At least Caesar's closest advisor, an orangutan named Virgil (Paul Williams), is on his side on this matter; but Aldo is clearly a destabilizing force, and soon he'll be plotting an outright coup.  What kicks off the plot, however, is MacDonald's semi-random suggestion that Caesar seek out the recordings of his murdered parents, which persist beneath the old Ape Mall compound beyond what's already being called the Forbidden Zone (so it has to be New York, unless all ape colonies have forbidden zones).  Caesar, MacDonald, and Virgil equip themselves with the firearms minded by the old orangutan philosopher, Mandemus (Lew Ayres), and venture out.  But beneath the radioactive ruins of Ape Mall live the vestiges of another kind of humanity, already branching off from the band MacDonald shepherdsthey are, shall we say, mutatingand they don't take kindly to this trespass.  Led by a survivor of Caesar's slave revolt, Kolp (Severn Darden), an expedition to eradicate the apes is launched, and the battle for the planet of the apes begins.  At speeds of up to four, even five miles per hour.

I wouldn't say that Battle is, at its heart, an "action movie," but its centerpiece is an action scene, the meeting engagement between mutated man and talking ape that comprises most of the third act; and it's somewhat telling that Battle was cut down by some ten minutes for its theatrical release, and the plurality of those cuts happened during the titular battle, but not because, like Conquest, it was too violent and grim, but apparently just because it was recognized in real time as bad, boring, and cheap.  There's a certain dark whimsy to using a big yellow school bus for motorized infantry, but that's about the limit: it's slow, repetitive, and tactically more similar to children playing soldier than "a battle"possibly intentionally, after all, there's that busbut Conquest's returning director J. Lee Thompson isn't making some art film here, and, ultimately, it's just not a very good use of a substantial part of this film's runtime, the longest in the franchise to date besides PotA.  It's a pity, because it's presumably where a lot of its small budget went.

As for any other avenue this leaves us for Battle being exciting or interesting, this is mostly retreading other Apes movies, now at a much lower level of energy and consciously retreating from the nihilistic ugliness.  The other reason Dehn was given new counterparts in the Corringtons was because Conquest had literally frightened away its audience, and Dehn's original draft for Battle was still intent on being exactly that mean-spirited.  It was not necessarily good, considering that it emphasizes, for example, how incredibly poorly Dehn understood human language production.  But more troublingly, the fact that "human language production" is even in play points to how even in Dehn's original concept (or "concept") for this third prequel, it was never going to be much more than an Apes fan wiki made celluloid.  Even so, it was at least willing to grapple with topics like political assassination and power madness, and tack towards Dehn's more cynical view of history.

I don't think I'd automatically reject optimism in an Apes movie, but it isn't really what you come to them for, and it would've had to have been better at it than this, and the "hopeful" Apes would've seemingly been required to not just recycle material already covered by a franchise largely bound to hopelessness.  But, on one hand: another vainglorious gorilla antagonist, such as in Beneath (and Akins's Aldo is a tiresomely stereotypical, grunting version of that).  On the other hand: a bunch of poorly-dressed post-apocalyptic humans, interchangeable with those of every other cheap post-apocalyptic movie, all going through the motions of a plot that purports to explain Beneath's psychic mutant backstory despite no one asking for it, and without ever arriving on any of the things that made Beneath's psychic mutants fun.  Now neither psychic nor meaningfully mutant, the movie appears to think that the most interesting thing about them was that they wore coifs.

In the center we still get McDowall, which is some comfort.  He's good as always, but that's not the same as "good as ever."  The only performance rising to the level of notability is Williams'sperhaps partly because, uniquely for the franchise, he's only a little taller than the ape he's playing would be (you know, I'd believe you if you told me Chambers never had more than the vaguest idea what an orangutan looks like), but mostly it's because his good-natured pedantry is sharply-drawn and likeable.  Ayres, in a tertiary role, is also good, insofar as his orangutan's pedantry is distinct from Williams's.  Including McDowall, that exhausts the number of actors who do more than recite their lines.  But it's kind of astonishing how minimally Caesar feels like he's taking part in his own movie, especially considering that one of the main turns of the plot is Aldo's murder of his son.  As for MacDonald and his humans, they objectively don't have anything to do, except to occasionally ineffectually complain about injustice.  There's some version of Battle that does something intelligent, or anything at all, with the "devil you know and the devil you don't" questions its scenario should raise more-or-less automatically; in this version, Aldo locks all the humans in a corral, they participate in no way in the crisis, and the pay-off is that MacDonald gets to be snide when Caesar lets them out.

So the good is pretty limited here, though it intermittently exists.  Battle lives up to its predecessors fully in one respect: no Apes movie has had a bad score and Leonard Rosenman, returning from Beneath, doesn't let it start now, splitting the difference between his previous score's Jerry Goldsmith impression and a new, bombastic Dimitri Tiomkin influence in the title theme and action cues.  (It's trying to impart some epicness to the proceedings.)  Thompson, at least, didn't completely give up on his movie, despite having signed on before the script was started and being underwhelmed once he got one; thanks to cinematographer Richard Kline, continuing the Apes tradition of accomplished DPs doing solid work, the film's reasonably well-shot (even if it's only sometimes well-edited).  There's a penchant, anyway, for productively uncomfortable blocking inside some legitimately ambitious Panavision compositions, that not-infrequently involve split diopter photography that Kline's taking pains to hide.  The ruins of Ape Mall are the one place the film manages to strain successfully against its budget, starting with matte shots and a semi-persuasive melted urban landscape, as well as fairly-detailed trashed versions of the sets we saw last time; that's bolstered by a decision to pitch everything underground at the most insanely canted angles, which, at least at first, affords a sense that the nuclear blast was so darned powerful that it changed the very angle of the continent we're standing on.  (As the film continues, it devolves into "the camera is just tipped over a little," but it's nice while it lasts.)

There is, finally, the novelty of attempting to stage some action in trees for our famously-arboreal cousins, which is hampered somewhat by the fact that McDowall, despite heroic efforts throughout this series, is not a chimpanzee.  I still appreciate the effort, and it gives us a denouement that's easily the best part of the movie, with its one truly memorable scene of a guilt-ridden gorilla chased unto death by the cult-like chanting of his community's conscience.  It's good for an Apes movie to end on a high, somewhat-dark note (the return to the framing device, and the moderately-optimistic surprise it affords, is decent, too).  But this has not been a movie with a lot of acceptable notes.  So it shouldn't be a disappointment, but it is, because in the end, Battle turns this miraculous franchise about talking monkeys into what it had never been before: an obvious waste of time.

Score: 4/10

*I suppose this surprised me, because half a century later, the Apes films feel like they should be obscure curios of the 60s and 70s, but of course they're the opposite; accordingly, there's enough material out there that anybody who wants can be an Apes scholar.


  1. Re: the Apes movies actually being more famous than it feels like they should, it doesn't hurt to be reminded that Planet of the Apes was basically the biggest thing going in sci-fi in the early 70s. I'd say they were roughly the equivalent of the 80s Star Trek movies (though we're far enough away at this point you'd have to explain to people *those* movies were blockbusters, too). There were big geeky Apes fans that kept the fire going well into the 90s.

    1. Yeah, it's just one of those things that I know is true, and makes perfect sense (e.g., "they made five of them"), yet feels "too early" in pop cultural history for sci-fi franchise fandom to take off in anything but a prototypical way, mainly through Trek. Though I suppose Trek and Apes could've reinforced one another, I assume there was, in the 70s, some big overlap.

    2. I think a large part is that the big genre movie magazines like Starlog and Fangoria didn't get started until after Planet of the Apes had run its course, so it's harder to find documentation of that kind of thing.

  2. Props to the casting department for nabbing John Huston as the Lawgiver, his presence alone makes the movie feel more grand than it actually is.