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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Now that I know they won't kill me, I don't enjoy them: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

Roddy McDowall returns as his own ape son. Armando (Ricardo Montalban) is back, too. This film follows from the more intense ending of the last. There's little humor, lots of social commentary, even a black guy, which allows for some reflection on race.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes: 1972, directed by J. Lee Thompson.

The story starts 20 years after Escape, at which point apes have already gone from pets to slaves in the wake of the space virus that killed all the dogs and cats (no mention of the fate of pet fish, hamsters, and birds, though I presume they're dead, too). Caesar (now all grown up) is brought to town--though I don't think which city they're in is ever stated--by Armando to advertise the circus. The ape has a hard time seeing how humanity treats the apes, and when one ape is being beaten badly, Caesar yells at the police. Since he's not supposed to be able to talk, the police confront them. Caesar runs, but Armando goes to the police so as to try to avoid suspicion of Caesar being Cornelius and Zira's son. Caesar blends in with the rest of the apes, and is eventually bought by the mayor. Armando, meanwhile, dies in police custody after trying to deny that Caesar is intelligent. Caesar finds out, and his hatred for humanity increases.

Eventually, the mayor finds out that Caesar is the talking ape. He orders an execution, but his assistant MacDonald, who just happens to be black, balks at the idea--even after he learns that Caesar can talk. So MacDonald saves Caesar, who then gets out and organizes and ape revolution. They take over the city, and Caesar at first calls for ape rule and what sounds like brutality toward humanity. Then he steps back and says that they'll show mercy to the mayor and others. The city is burning.

Okay, a couple of things. First, that last scene is pretty weird. The apes have won the city, and they've got the mayor in their hands. The gorillas stand ready to execute him, and at first Caesar is going to give the order. But MacDonald tells him that this wasn't supposed to be how it was and he shouldn't be so violent. Then Caesar gives a rousing speech about taking over and ruling and making humans their servants. At the end, I expected all the gorillas to cheer, but everybody just stood there quietly for a moment. Then a few gorillas raised their weapons like they're going to kill the mayor, but the woman chimp speaks for the first time and says, "No." Caesar then tells everybody that they're going to be kinder than the humans have been to them. And the film ends.

Second, at one point MacDonald is talking to the (white) mayor about treating the apes like slaves. The mayor says, "All of us were slaves once, in one sense or another." And MacDonald doesn't so much reply--he's only the assistant, after all.

There's a lot more ape behavior in this one, since there are a lot more apes that aren't so far removed from their current evolutionary form. Except for Caesar, they can't talk yet. So there's lots of grunting and arm waving; at the beginning, Armando even has to teach Caesar to walk more like an ape, using his shoulders more, so he fits in. Yet all the apes walk more upright than their wild forebears, and they've got hands that are more like human hands. And the female chimp talks at the end. Those are huge evolutionary changes in a single generation. So, now, let's deconstruct that notion.

Conquest is set in the 1990s, at which time humans have already been far into outer space. Things are different, especially when it comes to science. They've got suspended animation, which we learned in the first Apes movie. So why not advances in evolutionary biology: let's say that, upon adopting apes as pets, and discovering just how useful they were as servants/slaves, people started modifying them. A more upright posture would free the hands for more tasks. Following that, modify the fingers and thumb for better tactile use. But don't give them speech--they still know Zira and Cornelius's tale about the end of human civilization and fear talking apes. I actually think it makes more sense for the government to be afraid of talking apes if they'd set apes down a different evolutionary path already. They're afraid of their own creation. Why not?

I liked this movie a lot. There's an extended sequence in which we see the apes preparing themselves for revolution. They do apparently simple things in protest, like keep a lighter away from the lady who utters the quotation I put in the title of this post. Or polish a guy's sock instead of his shoe. Or dump over trash and start stomping on it. And in the background of all these acts of protest, Caesar watches, nodding his approval. Caesar goes from a guy being swept up in something to an underground guerrilla leader. It's pretty cool. I liked watching his struggle with the fact that he couldn't speak or he'd give himself away.

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