Showing posts with label Watts riots. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Watts riots. Show all posts

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) 3 of 4

** this review (especially where noted) has spoilers on the original Planet of the Apes movie-cycle **

In the mid 1980s, I started taking notes on each film viewed.  I have no record of a review of this film, which means I just saw it for the first time in at least 30 years.  It's better than I thought. 

The Planet of the Apes franchise is of course science fiction, so it's all speculative.  Still, this film is clearly offered as a possible future: the characters even discuss whether they can prevent the apocalyptic timeline portrayed in the earlier films.  The story is also framed with a speech by "the Lawgiver" (John Huston), speaking some centuries in the future.  Since the film asserts the possibility of changing the timeline, this frame emphasizes that the characters have choices, that their choices will influence the future, even centuries down the line.   

Battle is the only Apes film in which apes and humans coexist in peace, although that peace doesn't last.  The apes are still led by Caesar (Roddy McDowell), who led the slave revolt in Conquest.  Caesar has created a utopian community of apes and humans, although the apes are dominant.  Although war has killed most of the Earth's population, the idyllic community is sheltered among rolling green hills evocative of Tolkien's Hobbiton, or the legendary Arcadia. 

The premise and setting are inspired, and the film has an eerie charge.  Battle is, I think, significantly better than Conquest, which is just a dutiful recounting of the inevitable ape takeover.  Like Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Conquest is an in-between sequel that never establishes it's own identity.  Also, Fox was uncomfortable with the disturbing ending to Conquest (inspired by the Watts riots); they demanded it be softened with Caesar's promise of mercy for the subjugated humans. 

Although the original ending has been restored on the DVD, we should remember that Battle is a sequel to the softened version of Conquest, thus it starts with an uneasy peace between apes and humans. 

Making a high-profile film series that allegorically addressed the racial tensions of the U.S. took its toll on the filmmakers.  Screenwriter Paul Dehn had to quit Battle for health reasons, and his story was altered.  For example, the new scripters excised Dehn's idea that the apes deliberately deprived humans of their ability to speak (thus the mute humans in Planet of the Apes).  Both Dehn and producer Arthur Jacobs, the prime mover behind the franchise, died within three years of Battle's release.   

Like Conquest, Battle was directed by J. Lee Thompson.  Thompson spent the 1960s making blockbusters: The Guns of Navarone, Taras Bulba.  In the early 1970s, he sobered up, and was looking for a meaningful challenge, and found it in the Apes franchise.  I suspect Thompson was deeply shaken by the shocked reaction to the violent end of Conquest, evidence his dazed quote  about the changed ending:  "It was a copout, but a copout I was fully in favor of." 

** severe spoilers ahead **

I believe this recent stress caused Battle's greatest flaw, action scenes that pull their punches.  The plot turns on the death of Caesar's son when a gorilla chops the branch the youth is standing on.  Unfortunately, the scene is ridiculous as filmed, as we're asked to believe that a young, healthy chimpanzee would die from a fall of about 15 feet.  It doesn't work at all.  Similar flaws plague the climactic battle.  This attack by a human clan on the ape village looks hokey, with a small number of human soldiers, and the continual re-use of the same exploding treehouse. 

Still, the film holds up well as an unsettling, alternate-reality variation on the Blaxploitation genre.  Although not the best of the series, it retains some potency at a point when most movie-series are scraping bottom.  Then and now, Battle for the Planet of the Apes confronts the viewer, because of course, we are the ones deciding possible futures.   

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) 2.5 of 4

** this post has spoilers on the first four films in the (original) Planet of the Apes series **

I find the first three films in this series easier to watch than the last two.  I've been putting them off, and now that I've seen this one again, I think I know where the series went wrong. 

Of course, the Planet of the Apes cycle turns the social and political tensions of the Vietnam era into  provocative science fiction.  In the first three films, we learn that this ape-planet is Earth of the far future; then we see the planet destroyed; then we see two intelligent apes escape back in time, destined to start the ascendance of the apes in the first place.

Each of these films creates its own identity.  Planet of the Apes is an elaborately-produced, groundbreaking, black-humored science fiction parable with an all-time twist at the end.  Beneath the Planet of the Apes is more of a comic-book movie, driven by shock value and visual ideas, including the franchise's apocalypse chic.  Escape from the Planet of the Apes makes the drama more domestic, emphasizing satire and comedy of manners. 

As it becomes a more specific parallel to race relations in the U.S., the series makes the delayed confession it was humanity's own fault they lost control of their planet.   As Conquest opens, we see Caesar (Roddy McDowell), the lone intelligent ape in the near-future, separated from his kind protector (Ricardo Montalban) and left to the cruelty of human slavers.  By the midpoint of Conquest, the viewer fully sympathizes with the apes. 

The humans, led by Governor Breck (Don Taylor), are cowardly, deceitful, and cruel, having made their once-pets into a new slave class.  Even McDonald, Breck's black deputy, ultimately gives up on mitigating extremes and helps Caesar.  As we side with the apes, the air leaks out of the series, because there's no further need for the thorny metaphors of social sci-fi.  The movie may be an accurate depiction of human nature (and white guilt), but now it's just another underdog story about battle tactics.

Given the above, the film still works pretty well, making great use of futuristic, found locations (apparently Century City in L.A.), and night shoots.  The cast does what they can with schematic material; I found myself wishing an Oscar nomination for Roddy McDowall, who all but carries the film, and from behind a mask.  J. Lee Thompson directs well, but missed the mark by not having the apes use their unique abilities in battle: why not find a location with handholds and have the apes descend on the human troops?   And while it's nice to see the original, downbeat ending restored, it still lacks irony, previously the hallmark of the series.

In retrospect, I feel the white creators of Conquest took the easy way out, siding with a fictional slave revolt.  In reality, separatists such as the Black Panthers were soon suppressed by American security, using some of the dirtiest tactics in national history, and the legal system resorted to tortured compromises such as Affirmative Action and school busing.  Race relations bogged down into a tug-of-war, part of the broader struggle known as political polarization.

It's fascinating that this intelligent film series ran out of challenging ideas at the same time Americans settled into their indefinite stalemate.