Set 18 years after the events of the previous film in the “future” that is 1991, Caesar (the offspring of the late Cornelius and Zira) can no longer hide in the shadows and watch his ape brethren mistreated by humans…
Regular readers of my reviews may remember that I criticised the previous film in this franchise for having one of the most tenuous explanations for a sequel ever. Thankfully, I can happily say that Conquest of the Planet of the Apes had its plot carefully seeded in the previous film this time. Positioning itself as part-sequel, part mid-quel (we’re getting into time-travelling time loops at this point), Conquest is a fully-intended, concluding half to the previous film. Unfortunately, it also feels rather uninspired and empty in a narrative sense (possibly not helped by it having the shortest runtime yet). Let me explain.
As we reach the 4th film in this original series of 5, we officially have none of the original characters left. In fairness, Roddy McDowall returns but he portrays his own son, Caesar, not his original character of Cornelius. This leaves the film at practically square one as far emotional investment is concerned. This would be fine if the plot was particularly strong, but as we get another rehash of the original film’s racism/slavery critique, it all feels rather tired at this point.
That’s not to say there aren’t positives to be found here. Roddy McDowall is the undisputed star of the film, getting the chance to display a solid range of emotions from sorrow to contempt and even outright fury. He portrays a self-anointed revolutionist very well. But as the only talking ape on this occasion, even his seasoned acting has a lot to carry.
On this topic of strong acting, the returning Armando (Ricardo Montalban) is the closest to an emotional core that the plot receives on the human side and indeed, his ultimate fate propels the whole thing forward into the anarchy that this movie promises. Montalban plays a fatherly role to Caesar, showing true love and consideration for the orphaned ape that he has raised from being a baby. And yet, the film leaves the question somewhat hanging that he may also be part of the problem. In the end, for all his claims of disgust at the treatment of enslaved apes, he’s too cowardly to ever push for change. As I said, there’s no definitive interpretation of Armando’s decisions but the fact that they make you think are worthy of credit.
Unfortunately, I wish I could say that the character of MacDonald (Kari Rhodes) had such depth to him. Unfortunately, it’s painfully obvious that he exists in this narrative purely to make blatant references to the plight of black slaves. I mean, he outright states himself that he helps Caesar because he empathises with the plight of the enslaved Apes. It would be perfectly fine if all of this was merely implied. I do believe that the comparisons are valid. But when the picture goes out of its way to lampshade its allegory on multiple occasions, it all ends up feeling ham-fisted and leaves the character of MacDonald feeling hollow.
Speaking of hollow, we finally come to our main antagonist, Breck (Don Murray). Whatever subtlety that existed in the human villain of the previous film is completely gone here. Breck is a borderline cartoonish racist. He is so obsessed with humans being superior that he does things that actively antagonise the apes into revolting. It’s not lost on me that one of the narrative threads of this franchise is the futility of resisting humankind’s ability to self-destruct, but Breck is so aggressively hostile to this slave class that you have to wonder how a revolution took so long.
Speaking of that revolution, sadly it’s all a bit scuppered by poor lighting. I understand that having these pivotal scenes happen at nighttime adds atmosphere but if you’re going to have chaotic scenes take place in pitch black, at least make sure the viewer can always tell what’s happening on-screen. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I reliably could, which rather diminished the impact of something I’ve been waiting most of 4 films to see.
On the music front, the only suite that particularly stood out for me was the one accompanying the chaos of the ape revolution. It fit very well with the chaos of the scenes (when I could see them properly) and did a solid job of heightening the tension. The rest of Tom Scott’s soundtrack is perfectly adequate but I can’t honestly say that anything else stood out.
And in conclusion, perhaps I could sum up this entire production as average. The revolution of the apes was prime material for a 4th film and yet it all feels particularly uninspired. The Franchise’s themes are finally starting to wear thin and there isn’t enough dimensionality to the majority of the supporting cast to keep things from metaphorically sagging.
Ranking: 2.5 stars out of 5
Disney Plus Presentation
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is available on Disney+ in a maximum resolution of 1080p HD and standard 5.1 surround sound on compatibility devices. This is in line with the Blu Ray releases in the US and is actually better than the standard DVD sets officially available in Europe (though you can find region-free Blu-Ray box sets of the entire franchise from third-party sellers on Amazon if you want to take the chance).
Curiously, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is the only film in the original series with an “Extras” tab available on its page, although it currently only offers a standard “promo clip”.
Presentation Ranking: 4 stars out of 5
“Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” is available to stream on Disney+ now in many countries including the UK and Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, The Netherlands and more.
What are your thoughts on “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes”?
Jon has been a Disney fan all of his life. From wearing out those expensive VHS tapes and visiting Disneyland Paris as a child to becoming a huge fan of the MCU in adulthood, Disney has helped shape some of the happiest, most fun moments he can remember.