Saturday, May 29, 2010

Battle for the Planet of the Apes

It’s the year 2670 AD, and we’re in some green corner of North America where brooks still babble on, even though everyone else has run out of things to say. But a voice still begins to speak, a voice of such sinister authority it could plausibly belong to either god or the devil—no one can tell the difference between such concepts anymore in 2670, they might as well be the same thing for all it matters. And what does this mighty voice say? What proclamations, what wisdom, does it impart?

Well, I’m embarrassed to report this voice is only here to recap the plot of Escape from the Planet of the Apes before we go another barmy expedition into the monkey house. Yes, the masterminds behind Battle for the Planet of the Apes have hired John Huston to do their plot summary. Tell me, who hires such an august presence just to stick him in a Halloween mask and make him recite the plot of a cheap movie as if it were the Book of Genesis? Is this a wise way to spend your casting budget?

But such is the bizarre logic of this film, which skimps on every detail—Claude Akins’ gorilla mask looks ready to fall off his face at any moment—yet throws such a strong presence into what otherwise could be (and should be) a completely anonymous role. We’re so deep in the realms of disappointment now that we can’t find our way back to the border anymore. Out here, there are only vultures circling this walking corpse of a movie, and any notions of kitschy fun were left behind in the dunes like an empty canteen.

Almost anything would be a comedown after the revolutionary zeal of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, but Battle, the fifth and final installment in the Ape series, is a particularly listless conclusion to the story. How can one even feel comfortable with such a benign movie after sitting through its four barbed predecessors? If the rest of the series forms a nearly seven-hour nightmare, this film is the night-light. It’s cute, reassuring, and unnecessary.

None of this is to say Battle is a particularly cheerful film, even if it does ladle some goopy love-and-harmony syrup all over its conclusion (“Peace is boring,” one character sneers, and the film unwittingly proves this). John Huston, as the Lawgiver, hangs around in the year 2670 to frame the action, which actually takes place centuries earlier in the aftermath of the fourth film. We’re on the sticky side of an undefined nuclear cataclysm that has more or less annihilated human civilization, leaving apes the dominant species, ruling over the remaining people.

Roddy McDowall returns as Caesar, the ape revolutionary from the fourth film, and his performance is one of the few remotely enjoyable things to be found in this torpid little movie. Even the flashes of misanthropic humour that characterize the rest of the series only appear here in small doses of tart smugness. The series used to make misery so much fun—now it just feels like a chore.

For instance, the law that ape shall not kill ape is broken when Aldo, a gorilla general, kills Caesar’s son (I’ll spare you a detailed exegesis on the complexities of ape politics that led to this incident). This fall from grace prompts the remark that the apes have at last “joined the human race.” Because humans are murderous monsters, you see? This is the moral of every ape film, but this marks the first time the message has been delivered in such a dutiful, automatic way. While the climactic confrontation between Aldo and Caesar carries some of that old surreal excitement—the assembled crowd eerily chants “Ape has killed ape,” as if the force of this fact alone is enough to punish the guilty—most of the film feels drained of energy and purpose.

Everything has a desultory feel, carelessly tossed off with disdain. Half of the time, we can’t even see what’s going on. The murky and poorly lit sequences that take place in the tunnels below some ruined city climax in a cloud of smoke, perhaps because director J. Lee Thompson was afraid we might actually see the movie and realize how bad it actually is.

Thompson, who also directed on the fourth film in the series, is clearly not engaging with the material this time around. Scenes begin the instant someone starts speaking and end almost before the last word has entered the air. Everything feels clipped and rushed; the filmmakers clearly can’t bear to waste one extra second of screen time on these characters. There are almost no transitions between scenes, no cushion as we jump from one flat moment to the next. The effect is such that you feel like you are being hurried through a museum moments before closing—speed walking past all the dead things.

But then again, what is there to see here? Even by the lax standards of Ape movies, the film is fairly incoherent. All of planetary life is apparently reduced to two colonies side-by-side yet completely oblivious to each other’s existence. Even more inexplicable is the fact that one of these colonies would choose to live in irradiated underground ruins, apparently preferring to starve in the dark rather than move into the lush forest right outside their cancerous hell. And somehow, in the span of a few years, apes have developed language and culture and politics. We even have hyper-intelligent orangutans discoursing learnedly on time and relativity, bizarrely, with the aid of highway metaphors. Because obviously a post-industrial society that uses horses for transport would use cars as their main point of reference, right?

Of course, I don’t go to these Ape movies looking for finely tuned narrative logic, but I feel like if I swallow one more ounce of this nonsense I’ll choke. As absurd as it is to rail against a cheap, cash-grab movie for not thinking through its plot, what I’m really bothered by is the lack of conviction and passion. I don’t ask that this movie make sense—I just want it to care.

Tragically, it all ends happily ever after. An assault on the ape-human colony ends with most of the irradiated tunnel dwellers being killed, while the few survivors form the beginnings of the bomb-worshipping cult we discovered in the second film. The militaristic Aldo dies in his final confrontation with Caesar and the humans and apes resolve to live together as equals. Then everyone hugs and some bunnies show up riding rainbows and pass the soma, it’s all good (details got a little hazy after that, but I think everyone broke into “Que Sera, Sera” at some point).

Is it wrong for me to want an unhappy ending? What I love about this dopey series is its unabashed fatalist streak. How many mainstream films can you think of from today or any other era that would dare embrace such darkness? Man is cruel, we’re all going to die—this is not the typical terrain of escapist entertainment. But there’s immense pleasure in this despair, a weirdly primal satisfaction akin to an old folk murder ballad, where all the worst impulses of humanity are dredged up like bones from the bottom of a lake and put on display. The Ape movies might as well be the cinematic equivalent of “Knoxville Girl” in the nuclear age. It’s a lament of self-defeat—an epic about how violence against others becomes violence against yourself.

Perhaps that is why this largely irrelevant coda feels so strained after listening to its four predecessors moan about death and destruction. Ignoring these demons is akin to giving in to them, making this one of the most joyless happy endings imaginable. The film succumbs to hope as if it were a fatal disease. In the final scene, the Lawgiver lectures ape and human alike about the uncertain future, but there is at least one certainty—there is no future for this series, and the movie bears that knowledge in every lifeless frame. Half-heartedly, the film preaches life and hope even as it gives up any will to carry on. A fitting conclusion to this most despairing series: this is what it looks like when a movie commits suicide.