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Review: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Directed by: J. Lee Thompson

Premise: The fourth film in the Planet of the Apes series. Picking up two decades after Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Caesar, the son of Zira and Cornelius, reenters human civilization and finds that human beings have domesticated the world’s primates and turned them into slaves. In response, Caesar begins to plot a revolution.

What Works: One of the main reasons that the Planet of the Apes films have endured, despite the fact that their special effects and filmmaking style have dated, is due to their political nature. Some of those politics are specific to the time in which the films were made, making the Apes pictures important cultural artifacts of their time. But beyond that, the politics gave the Planet of the Apes series an enduring life span because they granted the stories meaning that got underneath the surface of the series’ images and the filmmakers used a fantastic premise to confront something very real. And of all the films in the series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is most confrontational and the most overt with its politics. This is a story about the loss of innocence, the attainment of a revolutionary consciousness, and the overthrow of oppression by violent means. It is a dramatization—and for the most part a full-on endorsement—of the most revolutionary politics imaginable. In its best moments, Conquest has some of the most effective combinations of cinematic storytelling with highly charged political symbols. The film’s depiction of ape oppression and the climactic riot do this especially well and give Conquest some of the strongest moments of the Planet of the Apes saga. Conquest is in many respects the climax of the series, as it brings the themes of domination and subjugation full circle and its conclusion parallels and foreshadows the ultimate ending of Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

What Doesn’t: In evaluating Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, it is important to know that there are two versions: the 1972 theatrical cut and an unrated edition that was originally intended by the filmmakers but was only made available in 2008. Of the two, the unrated cut is preferable in that it restores the original opening and resolution and includes additional music cues. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is an uneven film, especially the theatrical cut which leaves out a lot of the music. The absence of the music gives some of the scenes a languid pace, especially throughout the middle of the picture. There are also some flaws shared by both cuts of Conquest. The film never explains how the familiar American society of Escape from the Planet of the Apes degenerated into the police state of Conquest. While all the Apes films possessed a political agenda and strive to balance that agenda with their story, this picture prioritizes itself in the opposite fashion of Escape. The former film was more subtle with its politics and effectively constructed sympathetic characters but Conquest zealously beats its political drum as hard as it can and spends little time on character development. This is especially true of the governor, played by Don Murray, whose villainy comes across as cartoonish. Ironically, the political insight of the film suffers for it because the film largely polarizes the human-versus-simian conflict and there is little of the nuance introduced by Escape.

DVD Extras: The DVD edition includes that theatrical version of the film and trailers and featurettes. The Blu-Ray edition includes both versions.

Bottom Line: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes does succeed at what it is trying to do. The restored version of the film is probably the preferable cut, especially for Apes enthusiasts. There are some significant shortcomings in the filmmaking but Conquest has an authenticity and an audacity about it that makes it an important and entertaining film.

Episode: #352 (August 14, 2011)