Monday, July 11, 2011

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

There’s not a lot of plot to talk about in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, but the movie does raise some huge questions about continuity that need to be addressed. It takes place in 1991, twenty years after the events in Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Armando (Ricardo Montalban) is still running his circus and Zira and Cornelius’ child Milo (played as an adult by Roddy McDowell) is still part of the show. For obvious reasons, Armando and Milo are keeping quiet about Milo’s ability to talk. Things were bad enough for talking apes in Escape, but the situation has degenerated even more in the last twenty years.

In Escape, Cornelius told a story about a plague that wiped out all cats and dogs on Earth, leaving humans petless until they began domesticating primates. Because of the apes’ intelligence and dexterity, however, they were able to be used for more than just affection and soon became slaves. According to Cornelius, this happened over centuries until an ape named Aldo learned to speak and uttered his first word, “No.” The apes rebelled and the Planet of the Apes was born.

In Conquest, that timeline has been shortened to two decades. By 1991, the plague has already killed off the pets and the apes have been subjugated into slavery. They haven’t learned to talk yet, except of course for Milo. The events of Conquest play out much as Cornelius described them in Escape, only a couple of centuries early and with Milo replacing Aldo as the leader of the rebellion and a female chimpanzee being the first regular ape to speak. She says the word, “No,” but it’s not an objection to slavery, it’s in protest to the violence of the apes’ revolution. The film ends with Milo’s (though he’s taken the name Caesar during the film in order to disguise his being the son of Zira and Cornelius) pronouncing that the apes – having won their freedom – will be humane rulers of the planet.

A brief comment about that: Caesar sounds overly hopeful in his closing speech. He talks about “those who were our masters are now our servants” and the apes’ dominating humanity with compassion, but that’s perhaps overstating the scope of the revolution. They’ve taken one city (though an important one), but Caesar makes it sound like a worldwide conquest. I take it as rhetoric optimism; pumping up the troops. Without knowing yet exactly how the next film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes plays out, I expect the apes to have a harder fight ahead of them than Caesar paints a picture of.

But back to the inconsistencies. After watching Escape, I determined that Cornelius must have made up his story about the pet plague and Aldo’s “No.” But there are too many similarities between his version and what happens in Conquest. It’s easy to write that off as lazy writing, but not nearly as much fun, so I’d like to reconcile the two versions if I can.

In the comments to my Escape post, Mike DeStasio (a brother-in-interests who runs excellent blogs dedicated to jungle girls and Hercules, while also contributing to Conan and Red Sonja blogs) offered a theory based on Dr. Hasslein’s thoughts on time-travel from that movie. His whole comment is worth reading, but if I’m not misrepresenting him [update: I am. Mike explains in the comments below.], it boils down to the creation of alternate universes. In essence, each Planet of the Apes film depicts a different reality (or lane in Hasslein’s highway). Logically, this works just fine. It incorporates an explanation directly from the series and explains everything perfectly. But I’m not completely satisfied by it.

It’s incredibly geeky of me, but I can’t enjoy the series as much if all the movies don’t take place in the same reality. I can still like Conquest if Caesar is a different character from baby Milo in Escape, but I like it so much more if they’re exactly the same guy. If they aren’t then the Planet of the Apes movies aren’t so much a continuing series as they are succession of standalone films. They’re not worse movies if they’re standalone, but my personal preference is for the continuing series.

So, with much respect to Mike and his equally valid theory, I’m going to offer an alternate one that will keep the films in the same reality while – hopefully – still making sense. To make it work I have to adjust my theory about Cornelius’ story in Escape. He can’t have made everything up. There are too many similarities between his version and what really happened, so I’m going back to another theory that I’d discarded while thinking about Escape. It’s consistent with the first two movies that Cornelius went to work either for or with Dr. Zaius at some point and discovered some details about the apes’ history with humanity. While watching Escape, I couldn’t figure out why Cornelius kept some of those details and embellished others (primarily the apes’ annual observance of the revolution), but I could have been overestimating the amount of detail that Cornelius had.

Perhaps he only knew a few facts: the pet plague, the slavery, the “No,” an ape named Aldo. Knowing that these details would be just tantalizing enough to piss the human military off if that’s all he shared with them – and fearing the torture they’d perform on him trying to get other details out that he didn’t have – he filled in the blanks himself. He didn’t realize that the revolution happened in the 1990s rather than the 2170s, for instance. Or who led the rebellion. Or who first said, “No.” Or who Aldo was (he doesn’t appear until the next film).

Battle may force me to rethink this all over again and I may end up just adopting Mike’s theory anyway, but for now it works to keep the first four movies consistent. Zira and Cornelius didn’t change time by coming back; they paradoxically caused their own timeline to happen. Not in the way that Cornelius related it, but in the way that it had always, actually taken place. And not just by giving birth to Milo. Conquest reveals that the pet plague was brought to Earth by a spaceship. Since Earth in the ‘70s for this series has a lot more space travel going on than the real '70s did, maybe it was a human-piloted ship that brought back the plague. Or maybe it was Zira and Cornelius’. I kind of like that second option best.


snell said...

Trust me, Battle will cause you to rethink nothing except your sanity.

I've always thought that Cornelius & Zira did change history by coming back. Think about this--their corpses were in the possession of the military. Do you think they weren't examined very closely, their DNA not examined to say what made them different from contemporary apes?

From there, it's only a hop and a skip to conjecture that some fools used that info to genetically engineer "normal" apes into the servants we see, since they're really nothing like the "normal" contemporary apes. How else could apes evolve so massively in 20 years? This probably would have happened anyway...but the presence of future ape DNA to use sped up the process (just as having a Terminator chip from 1 to study may have sped up Terminator evolution in as seen in T2).

Bonus: we can easily suggest that that genetic experimentation somehow unleashed the dog/cat virus...

Michael May said...

That's brilliant. I meant to mention the weird, more-humanoid apes in Conquest and then forgot to. I love your explanation, especially because it has humans trying to manipulate something they know is dangerous only to have it bite them right on the butt.

Mike D. said...

Taylor , Cornelius , Zira , Brent and Ceasar are all part of the original time line. They are still the same throughout. But the Hapless astronauts started a chain reaction altering events as they were happening. Much in the same way time waves changed realities in "A SOUND OF THUNDER"
All our heroes and even the Astro apes...kept haplessly walzting around mucking up time and history. BUT yes's all the same people and apes involved..not alternate versions.

Mike D. said...

ps...I can't wait for you to cover Battle....that is my 3rd favorite...1- 2 and then Battle.

Michael May said...

Thanks for the clarification, Mike. I was afraid I was getting it wrong. :) I updated the post to point readers to your comment.

Just watched Battle last night and liked it a lot. Not everything about it, but overall I thought it ended the movie series nicely. Looking forward to writing about it.

Mike D. said...

Exactly Michael and following this theory...both my explanation and yours are completely valid both at once and all at the same time....get it? ;)

Michael May said...

Time travel makes my head hurt. :)


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