Synopsis: In this spectacular final Chapter of the legendary Apes saga, an idyllic society of peaceful coexistence is threatened when militant gorillas and a tribe of mutant humans clash with the benevolent leader (Roddy McDowall), pitting man against ape in an explosive, apocalyptic climax!
‘Battle’ takes place at the beginning of the 21st century – at an undisclosed time, but at least 12 years in the future (thus at least 2003 or beyond). The apes are emancipated, and live on the outskirts of the human city, which is now reduced to radioactive rubble with few survivors remaining.
The crux of the film are the political wrangling between Caesar and the gorilla general, Aldo, and a combat between the apes and the remaining humans. There’s a little bit of exposition and social commentary, but, overall, this is all there is to this film.
For this particular viewing, I decided to watch the previously unavailable original cut of the film, apparently considered the ‘definitive’ version of the film by fans of the series. It was available in bootleg form for years but it is now available on DVD and BD.
It is a vast improvement over the theatrical edition, even if they’re both weak films. The cuts that were made were only short ones, but they were interspersed throughout the film and it was enough to change its tone completely – the theatrical version was completely sanitized and removed key elements that entrenched the mythology in the series.
Even more so than in ‘Conquest’, this is hardly gritty filmmaking by today’s standards. But this version of ‘Battle for the Planet of the Apes’ adds a seriousness that was severely lacking in the one that was presented back in the day: the possibility of a nuclear attack and the origins of the nuclear cult were omitted, General Aldo’s cold-bloodedness was incredibly inconsistent and the set-up of the film was trimmed, probably all for the sake of expediency.
Does it make it a better film? Yes. Does it make it a great film? No.
The film focuses too much on the action elements of the story, which is typical of a series that is winding down – in its final flailing moments, producers will always try to entice through excitement, instead of through intellect. The problem here is that the series had progressively smaller budgets, so creating large-scale action sequences was pretty much impossible to do.
The director, J. Lee Thompson, tried his best with what was at his disposal, but we’ve seen better far many times before and since – including in his previous work (ex: ‘The Guns of Navarone’), when he was privy to big budget. However, there are pacing issues as well: the human army is essentially a Salvation Army convoy – they are SO ill-equipped and their vehicles go SO slowly that you have to wonder why they even bother. As realistic as it might be given the circumstances, watching them drag themselves along for minutes at a time is terribly unimpressive and their ‘surprise’ attack becomes anti-climactic.
The budget created other problems: the gorillas make-up is so cheap that it doesn’t look real at all – we know they are one-piece masks, instead of the multi-layered pieces the other apes have. As well, the matte painting used to simulate the devastation of the human city is shoddy at best – I can’t remember the last time I saw something so cheap-looking, and that so defies credibility, in a ‘major’ motion picture.
But, beyond the technical issues, my main problem is in the continuity of the series: if this is taking place, say 12-20 years after the last film, how is that all the apes can talk? It was originally supposed to be due to countless centuries of evolution, because apes simply don’t have the capacity for human speech. So what happened in so short a time? And how is it that they’re all reasonably intelligent already? Wouldn’t this also be a progressive improvement in the species?
Were the story taking place maybe a thousand years into the future, then my suspension of disbelief would kick in and I’d just be happy to let go. However, there is absolutely no way that this can be happening (at most!) a couple of decades after the apes rioted. It’s bad enough that one has to swallow whole the notion that the apes won the war on their first try and took over the whole planet (in ‘Conquest’ it was clearly understood that it would take many battles before they would succeed); how were the humans beaten so soundly?
In the end, we are left incredulous. Most of what’s on screen doesn’t pass the smell test and there is very little substance to make up for it. Aside from some minor commentary on the futility of war, the film is meant to be more of an action piece than thought-provoking sci-fi cinema. Sadly, it mostly fails on that level, too.
Nonetheless, ‘Battle’ appeals in bits and bites, even if it was a poor way to conclude the original series.