Watching the violence escalate in the Middle East, as Israel advances further into Lebanon and Hezbollah missiles strike farther past the border and Hamas continues to agitate, my mind turns to the same thing all of America is thinking about – Battle for the Planet of the Apes. The fifth film in the groundbreaking series has long been reviled and hated by fans, but current events and a recent extended cut have rescued the film from ignominy.
Don’t get me wrong – Battle for the Planet of the Apes is still not a very good movie, especially coming on the heels of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the very best and most brilliant film in the series. Each film suffered from budget cuts, even after the original was a bona fide phenomenon. The series made due with shrinking budgets ingeniously – Escape from the Planet of the Apes reduces the number of talking monkeys to two, and Conquest keeps all of the action to the then-newly built and fascistic Century City. But Battle needed to be big. It was the last film in the series and it was supposed to have the final fight between man and ape, the battle that would set up the status quo that we would see in the first film. Instead we get a war fought by 30 guys and a school bus.
Let’s backtrack. It’s possible that you don’t know why The Planet of the Apes series is the hands down best science fiction saga of all time. That’s right – the very best. You can shove your lightsabers up your ass and choke on your xenomorphs, because no other multi-film sci fi story has come close to beating this one. The saga is a pulp adventure series with a heaping dose of social commentary, time travel headfuckery and guys in ape suits. Each film works on multiple levels – they’re fun to watch as campy action films, they’re great taken as a time travel series and, my favorite, they’re brilliant as a way to examine humans and the world we live in. (And by the way, we’re going to get into spoiler territory here, if you can spoil films that are over 30 years old)
The first film is an examination of race relations, with the uber-conservative Charlton Heston showing up on a planet where apes rule and humans are mute slaves. All of a sudden the great white man is at the bottom of the racial ladder, which would be enough for any movie, but Rod Serling’s script adds the additional twist that Chuck hasn’t been on an alien planet at all – he’s been in Earth’s distant future, after humans laid waste to their own civilization in a massive nuclear war.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes is the most problematic in the series because it rehashes the first film to a huge degree. A couple of other astronauts show up looking for Chuck, who has taken the perfect woman (she’s sexy and she can’t talk) into the Forbidden Zone to live his life free of monkey interference. For the first half of the film our new hero, Brent, runs around figuring out that this place is a madhouse. The pulp adventure is turned up to ten as we discover that the Forbidden Zone is actually New York City, which is now inhabited by a group of superpsychic mutants, and they’re holding Heston captive. But there’s still a commentary here – as the gorillas, the warmakers of the ape society, gear up to assault the Forbidden Zone, the bookish chimpanzees stage some very Vietnam-era protests. Meanwhile religion takes some licks when we learn the mutants worship the Alpha and Omega Bomb, a nuke powerful enough to destroy the Earth. Beneath manages to out-twist ending the twist ending of the first film by having Chuck Heston go completely nuts and set off the Alpha and Omega Bomb, blowing up the whole planet. Oops!
Most film series would end with the utter destruction of the planet, but not this one. Escape from the Planet of the Apes reveals that Cornelius and Zira, the heroic chimpanzees from the first two films, reverse engineered Heston’s space ship and escaped the Earth just before the bomb went off. Some temporal shock nonsense occurs, flinging them back to just after Heston’s mission left – 1973. They show up with James Dean’s boyfriend Sal Mineo, who in a prophetic moment to his own real life gets murdered. The two talking apes become the toast of society in this, the least action-packed installment of the series, allowing the filmmakers to lampoon all aspects of (then)modern life. But things don’t stay happy for long – the government learns that Cornelius and Zira come from a future where apes not only take over the planet but explode it. When it’s discovered that Zira is pregnant, things get even more tense. Could the baby be the seeds of the talking apes that will one day run the world? The two go on the run with their newborn, only to be shot to death in the most bummer ending of all time. We see the military blow the baby away, but it turns out that the child was switched at the last minute with a normal ape baby. The talking ape child has been left in the hands of Khan Noonian Singh, Ricardo Montalban.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes isn’t just the best film in the series, it’s one of my favorite movies period. Twenty years later the world has changed – a strange plague has wiped out all the cats and dogs and humans have taken apes first as pets, and eventually as servants. Now apes are the slaves of humans, trained to do all sorts of tasks. Human society has, in turn, become totalitarian. The baby talking ape has grown up into Caesar, who has a burning desire to set his people free – a desire that turns violent after the humans who are searching for him kill Montalban. Caesar (played by Roddy McDowell, who also played Cornelius) organizes the apes and they revolt in a massive riot that is specifically choreographed to be like the Watts riots that had paralyzed Los Angeles only a few years earlier. That film ends with the city in flames and the apes triumphant, but the original ending was quite darker. Caesar, looking not a little like Che Guevara, delivers an impassioned speech that indicates his revolution will be a bloody one, but test audiences hated this. A voice over was added to indicate that Caesar would play nice and have a cuddly revolution.
Which brings us to Battle. The timeline is unclear – the film is either 12 or 27 years after the last one. The revolt of the apes resulted in global instability and a nuclear war erupted. Caesar led a small band of surviving apes and humans to a clean forest, where they try to live in peace. But tensions are rising, especially among the gorillas, led by General Aldo. They’re not so happy to be living with their former slavemasters the humans, and they think Caesar is weak. Aldo begins plotting a coup. Meanwhile, there are human still surviving in the radioactive city, slowly mutating and driven mad. When Caesar and a few friends explore the city innocently, the humans use the expedition as an excuse for war.
And so we have Caesar trapped in a situation just like we find ourselves today – he’s stuck in between two rival brands of fanatics. The mutants and Aldo share equal, if opposing goals – wipe the other side out in order to gain supremacy. It’s not much of a patch of land, but both sides will die and kill for it. The situation lines up pretty nicely to today’s world as well, as the mutants have superior weapons and numbers (and the Alpha and Omega bomb in the extended cut, as well as a mighty school bus), while Aldo and friends use guerilla (zing!) tactics (and in the extended cut have a certain level of bloodthirstiness as they massacre retreating mutants). It’s like if Hezbollah all wore monkey masks and Israel was under tons of mutagenic rubble. Meanwhile the film touches on other aspects that will feel eerily modern to the 21st century viewer, such as when Aldo rounds up all the Ape City humans and declares martial law – all in the name of security. I imagine Ape City was at an orange warning level that day.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes does give us a solution. If only we could get Ehud Olmert and Hassan Nasrallah to climb in a tree and fight it out, there could finally be peace. Even the film’s happy ending is tempered, though, by a flashforward to the legendary Lawgiver, who hopes for continued peace between human and ape while a statue of Caesar starts to cry. That’s a bad omen.
Watching Fox’s Planet of the Apes Ultimate DVD Collection (I have the one that came in the bust of Caesar!), what strikes me most is how much of a pity it is that Tim Burton ruined Planet of the Apes. His remake removed everything that made the originals more than a guilty pleasure, plus it sucked. While it’s great to have Battlestar Galactica using science fiction to examine our modern world and politics on television, it certainly would have been nice to have a new Apes series doing the same in movie theaters. And who knows, maybe if there had been a new version of Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Israelis would be able to realize that their actions are only going to lead to a world where apes evolved from men.