#8 in my Ranking of the Planet of the Apes Franchise.
What a sad situation to watch a movie stretch its budget as far as it can only to end coming off looking cheap. By all reports, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was made more cheaply than Battle for the Planet of the Apes, but it looked good using existing architecture to provide the kind of production value they couldn’t get from any sets they built. The fifth and final entry in the original run of Planet of the Apes movies looks unconvincing with a barebones forest village set where most of the action takes place, some dark tunnels for a chase in a bombed out city, and an unconvincing matte painting used to establish said city (presumably New York). It really wouldn’t matter that much if the story were compelling, but unfortunately it’s really not.
This suffers from some of the same structural problems present in every sequel to the original in that it spends a long time recapping previous events in the series. I thought it was going to be over quickly because this film actually begins with clips from both Escape and Conquest along with a voiceover from the Lawgiver, the ape who wrote the sacred scrolls, but there was still a bevy of unnecessary exposition to come from Caesar, the ape leader, and MacDonald, his pet/chief human advisor. There’s also a surprising amount of talk from an orangutan about the nature of time. This ends up being a weird hodgepodge of bland conversations that dominate the first half hour of the film. Exposition, pointless rambling about time, and some really thin world building, mostly about how humans are not allowed to say no to apes, all combine together for a dull opening act. It’s also really unclear about the nature of the relationship between ape and man in this little utopia. Humans seem to be subservient to apes, but Caesar talks about how that’s not true even though the apes obviously make rules for the humans and the humans don’t do so in return.
Anyway, the action moves to the nearby bombed out city for really thin reasons. MacDonald says that in the archives in the city there may still exist recordings of Zira and Cornelius, Caesar’s parents. So, they march in, make their presence known to the growing mutant society there, see the tapes that tell them nothing of particular interest, and then the mutants decide to start a war, essentially, because the leader has been bored for twelve years. The conflict that erupts is super thin, but it would have bene really easy to deepen it in interesting ways. Like, for instance, if the mutants were running out of food and dying and they needed to branch out towards the apes in order to survive, that might have been a motivation that made sense and potentially led to a clash of civilizations that lent itself to bloodshed. “It’s gotten boring,” is a really bad motivation for war.
There are really two conflicts that develop. The first is the one between mutant and ape, and the other is between the chimpanzees and the gorillas. Caesar is a pacifist (after having led a bloody slave revolt in the previous film without any indication that he regrets the action), and he does not want war against the humans, but the gorillas want to exclude all humans from ape life and are ready to fight at a moment’s notice. The gorillas stay away from the battle until after the chimps have beaten off the mutants only to massacre the remaining mutants. It’s then discovered that the head gorilla, Governor Aldo, cut the branch that Caesar’s son was playing on that killed him leading to a rather static standoff on a tree branch where Caesar awkwardly knocks Aldo to the ground and his death. It’s the first instance of ape killing an ape in this universe, and it feels like it’s supposed to have some kind of great import but it’s a weird way to start the new world of peaceful coexistence between all apes and humans. First, the big battle and then a duel on a tree branch that leads to a death. There’s no considering about the need for blood to create a new world, it’s just something that happens before we get a view, several hundred years in the future, of that world.
Another problem the movie has is that the timeline from the last movie is simply too short. It was well established in previous films that it was required that the intelligent apes from the future needed to mate with other apes to make more intelligent apes. It was also shown in the previous movie that Caesar was still the only ape who could talk. And then, about twelve years later, not only can every ape talk but the orangutans are doing relativistic physics in their head. And, society has completely melted down into nothing with a small forest settlement and a dying mutant society in the ruins of a major city. It feels like the sort of thing that gets set one hundred years after the previous movie, well after those who lived through the calamity are dead and the main characters have no memory of what came before other than what got passed down. The fact that humans who remember life before apes were even pets much less slaves are just fine with being slaves themselves is unconvincing at best.
One final note about the battle. It’s easy to pick on movies, especially cheap movies, for their poor sense of battle tactics. It’s kind of like shooting fish in a barrel, but this film takes the cake. The mutants are bearing down on the single line of apes in front of their city, and the mutants are driving jeeps and a school bus. They drive the jeeps at about five miles an hour straight at the line instead of using the speed to flank anything. It’s just kind of glaringly idiotic, but a rather minor point in a movie full of bland dullness.
It’s a movie that can’t figure out how to use its limited budget, wanting to go out on a big bang but not really having the money to pull it off. Instead of finding ways to interestingly explore the final stages of humanity before apes take over, the movie chooses to go for action thrills it can’t deliver on. It’s a dreary film.