Synopsis: In the near future, domesticated apes have replaced pets and personal servants – until their continual mistreatment provokes one advanced simian (Roddy McDowall) to launch a daring revolt that may change the roles of humans and apes forever!
1991: eight years after a plague has eradicated household pets, and apes have taken their place, humans have gotten used to keeping them as servants and slaves – to do their bidding.
Trained by Ape Management, the apes are beaten into submission and forced to respond to their masters’ wishes. Those who don’t are sent back for rehabilitation, which consists of psychological and physical torture.
But a young chimpanzee by the name of Caesar, the offspring of the apes in ‘Escape from the Planet of the Apes’, decides that this will simply not do. He decides to turn the apes on the human race.
‘Conquest’ is, without a doubt, the darkest entry in the Planet of the Apes series – including the Tim Burton reboot, TV series and cartoons. As a ’70s film (the last decade before cynicism became entrenched in North America), this invariably translates as lighter fare than what we regularly see today. But it is nonetheless very dark.
For starters, there’s the fact that it takes place in a totalitarian future where police brutality is commonplace. Granted, it’s usually directed at apes, but the police are unarguably powermad thugs. Should they turn on the human population, it would not be a pretty sight.
They are kept in check by the Governor, who has an inexplicable contempt and hatred for the apes, despite making use of them himself. I don’t know what bug crept up his butt, but he really hates apes. The only clue that we are given is in a speech he makes at the end – one that feels artificial and not a bit preposterous (mostly because his arguments shouldn’t even be conscious thoughts – they would require deep self-awareness).
After being trained with arbitrary and wholly incoherent exercises that many humans wouldn’t understand either, the apes are given guidance with the simple words “No”, “Do”, and “Home”. I can’t even begin to count the number of times a human being repetitively shouted those words in this relatively short film. It was mind-numbing.
Making things worse is the brutality in this film. Watching the torture of apes, even if they were clearly human beings in bad costumes, was unpleasant. The glee on the trainers’ faces while inflicting pain and abusing their power was a reminder of the darkest side of our nature.
But that’s also the strength of the film.
Where the film succeeds is in its social commentary, discussing human violence, slavery, racial discrimination and social change. While it may seem heavy-handed at times, it was undoubtedly topical when it was made. To remind us, the Governor’s right-hand man is African-American and he plays humanity’s conscience.
I watched the ‘Unrated’ version of the film, instead of the theatrical edition, for the first time. It was edgier, unrelenting in its depiction of violence. It’s no wonder that it was edited for a larger audience; while the fake blood looks like paint and cannot be mistaken for the real thing, the way the violence is presented certainly doesn’t make for a kid-friendly experience.
Mind you, this also makes the revolution at the heart of this story much more credible. In the theatrical version, one gets the sense that it was all too easy, too clean and that humanity didn’t put up much of a fight. Here, we see casualties on both sides, we are privy to the ensuing chaos and we feel the rage and fear burning in the hearts of men and apes alike.
It’s hardly a perfect film, but this original cut of the film is more complete, more realistic – even if it means being a little less savoury in the process. It has fire in its guts and it compensates for some of what’s missing in brains. If it’s not my favourite of the series, it’s a close second. Not that this is saying much, really.
Post scriptum: could someone please explain to me why all the apes are SO darned big suddenly? How did they become human-sized in less than a decade? It makes sense in the original film because they’ve had two thousand years to evolve. But here? Duh…