Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

When I first started this marathon, I anticipated thinking mostly about the social themes in the Planet of the Apes films. That’s because I was most familiar with the first two films, in which the social themes are so important that they often overshadow the adventurous plots. As the series progressed though, those themes became…well, not less important exactly, but simplified.

The first two films addressed several issues in order to explore the complex variety of problems in how people treat each other. They talk about war and prejudice and overpopulation and technology and other issues that I’m not remembering right now. But starting with Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the intricacy of these issues began to be eroded by familiarity. As the series kept going, it ran out of ways to talk about so many specific things at once and instead began to focus on a general message of tolerance.

Not that I think that was a bad move. It was absolutely the right thing to do. It didn’t contradict the first two films, but by jettisoning the biting commentary in favor of a broader message the series gained some flexibility that served it very well.

Now, I’m also not saying that Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes are better movies than the original film or Beneath the Planet of the Apes. They’re not (though some will disagree with me about Beneath). Any five-film series is going to start experiencing some diminishing returns and PotA is no exception. But I was surprised by how much I genuinely enjoyed the movies, right up to – and including – this last one.

When I reviewed Boom’s current Planet of the Apes comic for Robot 6, I explained that I hadn’t at that time seen the last two movies “partly because they’re not generally regarded as any good.” A commenter took me to task for that, saying that my statement “doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, given that Conquest is widely regarded among fans as being one of the best films in the series. For many people, it’s the best of the sequels. Very few people, in fact, would say that film wasn’t any good.” He went on to suggest, “It would be a good idea for CBR’s writers to at least do a little research before posting articles.”

I admit to feeling a bit defensive about that last bit, so in response to him, I let Rotten Tomatoes defend my assertion. They give Conquest a 44% fresh rating from critics and a 49% rating from audiences. That supports my statement that audiences in general didn’t like the film; an entirely different statement from saying that it’s the worst of the bunch. For the record, the freshness rating for the movies suggest that critics liked them in this order (from best to worst):

The original Planet of the Apes
Escape from the Planet of the Apes
The 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
Beneath the Planet of the Apes
Battle for the Planet of the Apes

Audiences rated them differently:

The original Planet of the Apes
Escape from the Planet of the Apes and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (tie)
Beneath the Planet of the Apes
Battle for the Planet of the Apes
The 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes

Clearly, the commenter was correct in saying that Conquest is regarded as one of the best in the series. That isn’t the same thing as saying that a lot of people liked it, so I stand by my original statement. The irony is that now that I’ve seen it – and Battle – I’m in the 38-49% that liked those movies. And like I suggested at the beginning of this post, that isn’t the only surprise.

As you can tell from reading the posts on Escape and Conquest, my attention became much less concerned about the films’ themes and much more about their continuity. As the series streamlined its social message, its timeline got more and more clunky. I struggled to keep it straight, resisting the theory that the films depict different timelines, but Battle challenges that approach even more.

If Battle reveals how much time has passed between it and Conquest, I missed it. The only date I remember being mentioned in the film is in the framing sequence in which John Huston plays the legendary Lawgiver and relates the events of the film to his students. At first look, it doesn’t appear that much time has passed between Conquest and the main events of Battle. Caesar (still played by Roddy McDowell) and his wife Lisa look to be the same ages they were during the ape rebellion, but they do have a pre-teen son, so clearly a little time has passed. There’s a scene in Conquest where Caesar and Lisa are clearly about to mate, so my first assumption was that their son, Cornelius II, was conceived then, placing Battle 10-12 years later. That’s impossible though. Too much has changed. Which is the major continuity problem with the film.

The biggest change is that all of the apes have now learned to talk. That’s a huge difference from Conquest and isn’t easily explained by a ten-year time lapse. On top of that, one of the main characters, an orangutan named Virgil (Paul Williams) claims that he studied under another, older orangutan named Mandemus (Lew Ayres). Virgil’s not a kid (Paul Williams was in his 30s when the film was made), so ten years isn’t enough time for Mandemus to have learned to talk and then taught other students. Much more time has to have elapsed.

I’ve been reading Rich Handley’s Timeline of the Planet of the Apes and he suggests a thirty-year difference between Conquest and Battle to account for some of this stuff. That puts Caesar in his 50s, meaning that Cornelius II was born when Caesar was in his 40s. But it also creates new problems, like the age of Caesar’s human aide, MacDonald (Austin Stoker).

Battle’s MacDonald is the brother of Hari Rhodes’ MacDonald from Conquest who was the aide of the evil governor in that film before switching allegiance to the apes’ cause. The problem is that Stoker was only thirty years old when he made Battle, meaning that his character would have to have been born around the same time as the events of Conquest. And since Rhodes was 40 when he made that film, it makes a 40-year difference between the brothers’ ages. Not impossible, but extremely unlikely.

Regardless of whether Handley’s got the timeline right, you see the problem. Too much history has passed to allow for a short time frame, but MacDonald’s age (and possibly Cornelius II’s) don’t allow for a long one.

Sidebar: I do like Snell’s theory that the US government took genetic samples from Zira and the original Cornelius and used them to enhance primates and create the apes we saw in Conquest. That would explain why those apes look nothing like real ones. It might even explain how the new apes learned to talk so quickly. It doesn’t explain Mandemus though. A significant amount of time has to have passed for him to learn to speak.

According to Handley, Ty Templeton (who wrote Mr. Comics’ Revolution on the Planet of the Apes mini-series) had a theory that Mandemus had actually been part of Armando’s circus and had learned to talk by being around Caesar, making Mandemus – not Lisa – the first primitive ape to speak. That’s a stretch, because it doesn’t explain how Mandemus gained the ability unless Caesar had some kind of supernatural powers that gave it to him.

Although... supernatural powers would help account for Mandemus’ being around early enough to teach a young Virgil. And actually, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. It’s exactly the scenario that Templeton suggests in Revolution and it’s based apparently on some early production notes from Conquest that suggest that Caesar does in fact have otherworldly abilities (gained perhaps by going through the time-field while in the womb). Handley even suggests that there’s a way of watching Conquest so that Caesar’s communicating telepathically with the apes he’s inspiring to revolt.

All of which has probably given you a headache by now, because it has me. By the time we get to the Planet of the Apes TV series with its dogs (aren’t they supposed to be extinct?) and photos of 22nd century New York (shown completely destroyed in Battle), I begin to wonder if it’s worth trying to make this all fit.

That makes me want to reconsider Mike DeStasio’s take about the alternate timelines. Again, not only does his theory allow for infinite inconsistencies, it has the advantage of being advocated for not only by Hasslein in Escape, but also by Virgil in Battle.

In his Introduction to Timeline Handley describes Mike and my theories as a very old debate amongst PotA fans. “Do the films form a circular chronology, with three through five leading to one and two, then back to the last three…or does the final trilogy creat an alternate, more optimistic future, canceling out the dismal world seen in the first two?” I don’t know that that second view perfectly describes Mike’s theory, but the circular one does express the way I’ve been trying to see the series. Complicating the discussion – as it always does with popular, long-running series – is the question of which stories count. If I can make all five movies fit into a circular timeline, do I also need to make the TV shows fit? Or can they be an alternate timeline a la Mike’s theory?

The answer of course is, “Sure. Why not?” I can do whatever I want and so can you. Handley explains this too. Based on Hasslein’s theory, “every time someone crosses the time barrier – the Hasslein Curve – in either direction, it’s possible for history to become modified. If so, given the astounding number of time-trips in this mythos[…]this renders the whole 'circular vs. changing' debate a far more complex question, for instead of two or three histories, we now have the potential for many more – infinitely more in fact…

Planet of the Apes history could very well be neither a circular loop nor an 'A or B' set of divergent highway lanes, but rather a Möbius strip embedded in an Escher landscape twisted up in a pretzel and tied in a sailor’s knot, continuously looping back upon itself, readjusting with each successive time-trip and enabling all of the various contradictory incarnations to occur on the same continuous, ever-changing loop. Sorting out one timeline from the next thus becomes virtually impossible.”

While that’s not at all satisfying for the me who digs neat, clean, organized stories, it’s extremely liberating for the me who – 1800 words into this post – hasn’t been able yet to say one word about the plot of the film because I’ve been focusing on continuity. I appreciate the permission to shut up about it and enjoy the stories.

As I said above, I liked the story in Battle. Following the ape uprising in Conquest, Caesar has started a new society in which apes and humans are supposed to be able to get along. But they’re not equal. Apes still don’t trust humans and have developed strict rules to prevent humanity’s taking over again. The humans are of course chaffing from the restrictions.

Complicating the situation, Caesar mounts an expedition with MacDonald and Virgil to go into the old city and look for archives that may have records of Caesar’s parents. He finds what he’s looking for, but that ends up being inconsequential. What’s important is that there are still humans living in the city, mutated by radiation fallout (the forbearers of the mutants in Beneath) and resentful of the ape uprising. They follow Caesar and the others back to Ape City and mount an attack, determined to wipe out the apes before the apes can (they assume) return with their own forces to destroy what’s left of the mutant population.

To make matters worse, Ape City’s chief military officer is a gorilla named Aldo (Claude Akins in a sad bit of miscasting; he doesn’t have the presence to play an intimidating villain) who hates humans and wants them all killed. There’s a whole subplot about Aldo’s trying to wrest control of the city from Caesar and he sees the mutant attack as an opportunity to declare martial law and seize power. Aldo of course is the name of the ape who first said “no” in Cornelius’ version of history in Escape. His role is very different here, but he certainly is an advocate for ape supremacy and an important historical figure. Perhaps by Cornelius’ time the details of his exact actions were lost. Cornelius might have invented a connection between Aldo and the story of Lisa’s “no.”

And here I am again, explaining contradictions. As I said when I wrote about Escape, it’s too fun not to. The difference now, thanks to Mike DeStasio and Rich Handley, is that I don’t feel pressured to explain everything. As we’ll see next week when we look at the live-action TV show.


Mike D. said...

GREAT STILLS , AWESOME WRITE UP. HAVE NOTHING TO SAY THIS TIME AROUND. You wrapped it up nicely. :)..Get the package yet?

Ken O said...

Michael, I'm not a big PotA fan, but I have to say I've really enjoyed the write ups. You really shine when you take one subject and look at the different aspects of it (like you did in the Stagecoach reviews).

Michael May said...

Thanks! It's time consuming as hell, but it's one of my favorite things to do.

Jason Copland said...

Yeah, I agree with Ken. I've been really enjoying you ramble on about this stuff... maybe one day, I'll sit and watch them all, too.

Mitchell Craig said...

My problem with Battle for the Planet of the Apes is that it was produced in the first place. The series should have stopped after Conquest, but this last film just spins its wheels, although the prolog/epilog with John Huston is good. That said, your examination of the temporal paradoxes in the Apes films has been fascinating.

Michael May said...

The series should have stopped after Conquest, but this last film just spins its wheels...

Even though I enjoyed it, I don't disagree with you. There's no demanding need for the story of Battle; it's just a snapshot of a particular period in ape history.

I'll talk more about that when I cover the live-action series, because I think it serves the same purpose. Battle and the TV show are both frivolous, but - in my opinion - entertaining.

Anonymous said...

Since you are going all the movies and TV shows (the animated one as well?) will you be writing about the tabletop rpg 'Terra Primate?'

Michael May said...

Unfortunately, I've never heard of it before you mentioned it. Is it any good?

Nathaniel W said...

Setting aside quality of execution (it's the cheapest of the movies and looks it) and specific concerns of plausibility and continuity (exact amount of time that's passed between entries, likelihood that any ape but Caesar should be able to talk so soon, etc), I always feel compelled to stick up for this entry as useful, even essential, to the series because it really cements the ambiguity of the "closed loop or changed future" question.

It's the first Apes movie that could plausibly be called optimistic, and despite the apes' fall from grace and the emergence of ape-on-ape violence, it at least strongly suggests that Caesar and his people could change the future that Taylor found in the first movie. If the series had ended after Conquest, even with the theatrical ending where Caesar moderates his fiery speech with a call for mercy, I think you still pretty much end up with a closed loop. But by actually introducing the gorilla Aldo, and ending the way it does, Battle seems to offer the audience a choice in how to interpret it. Is the statue of Caesar's tear at the end of the film a tear of joy (as opposed to the Lawgiver statue's tears of blood in Beneath) because they've made a better world? Or is it a tear of sorrow because there is just something primal and violent in apes/humans that will destroy the apparent peace at the end of the film (and we get a pointed shot of a little ape boy pulling a human girl's hair even as the Lawgiver talks about peace)? This also give you two ways to reconcile Cornelius's account of the apes' rise in Escape. Perhaps Cornelius's story was accurate, and by traveling back in time he and Zira have changed the circumstances (Caesar leads the revolt instead of Aldo) and lead to the possibility of a better future. Or perhaps the story Cornelius tells us is simply the story the future Lawgiver decides upon, meaning the peace that Caesar establishes does not last and history is re-written to have his ideological rival Aldo enshrined as the apes' savior.

Michael May said...

That's a beautiful way of looking at it. I admit that my interpretation was colored by my determination (from the moment I started the marathon) to reconcile everything into a single, closed-loop timeline.

Poetically though, I love the idea that Caesar was able to change reality.


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