Sunday, May 16, 2010

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

Oh, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, how does one capture your wild charms? How does one praise such an unruly beauty? Let me try:

This movie is a bucket of cold water in the face after midnight. This movie is rude and shocking. This movie is the chance encounter of a lampshade and Ricardo Montalban in an interrogation chair. This movie is like that time you hit that cyclist with your car and stuffed the twitching, bloody mess in your trunk and threw the corpse in the nearest river and still made it to your aunt’s house in time for dinner only to be told your cousin hadn’t arrived yet and that he was riding his bike over and should be there any minute. This movie is where they dump the bodies.

I’ve always felt a certain affection for the fourth installment in the Ape series. It isn’t a huge leap in quality from the third film, although the craftsmanship behind it (the movie was directed by J. Lee Thompson and written by series regular Paul Dehn) is actually quite sturdy, despite a bit of rushed pacing and the expected absurdities. But even though the typical Ape silliness remains, it is now tempered by some surprisingly vicious satire. This virulent little movie might well be the key to the whole series, enriching its three predecessors by tying together everything into a neat little Möbius strip.

Since the third film, we’ve moved from the mid-1970s to the far-flung future of 1991, when apes have become a new servant class. Upscale restaurants employ gorillas as waiters and chimps on the street will polish your shoes (monkeyshines!). Meanwhile, unemployed human waiters carry signs that say “Slaves are scabs,” and if you’re not watchful your chimp hairdresser will start picking over your scalp for nits.

The apes stand in for any oppressed other, thus completing the vicious circle begun in the first film, where the humans cowered before ape tyranny. There is a fairly obvious racial allegory to be found here, and the filmmakers make it more obvious with the aid of an African-American character named MacDonald, who works for the film’s villainous governor. The pair make for an entertaining odd couple, although it is curious that the governor would hire a man who is his philosophical opposite as his chief assistant (what’s the point of hiring someone to contradict you if you don’t ever listen to what they say?). In one amusing exchange, the governor brushes aside another one of MacDonald’s loaded allusions to slavery by facetiously declaring, “All of us were slaves once, in one sense of the word or another.”

Honky please. You’re no more a slave than Nathan Bedford Forrest was. But while the governor’s remark seems flippant and callous when spoken in 1991, it takes on a different light in the context of the rest of the series, when we know that all humans will essentially be reduced to slaves later on. Every side in this messed-up struggle plays the part of slave at some point. For all the radical shifts of power, oppression remains the only constant in this bleak view of history.

Well, oppression and Roddy McDowall, who returns to the series as Caesar (née Milo), the fully-grown offspring of Cornelius and Zira from the third film. As the saying goes, the child is the father of the man, which is doubly true when time travel is involved. In one of those curious situations that can only happen when screenwriters play fast and loose with time machines, Caesar is not only the child of his parents, but also their ancestor.

But setting aside this gnarled family tree, I admire the way the film brings everything full circle. In this movie, Caesar initiates the revolution that will one day lead to the ape-ruled planet we discover in the first film. Which leads us to annihilation of the Earth in the second film. Which leads us to the apes from the future traveling back in time and giving birth to Caesar in the third film. And on and on it goes, always changing and yet not changing at all. The actors switch roles, but the play doesn’t change one line.

There’s an incredible image in “Benito Cereno,” a Herman Melville story that came to mind after watching Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. In this story, an American sea captain has boarded a Spanish slave trading ship. The American—a blithe innocent like so many of Melville’s narrators—witnesses a ship seemingly in perfect harmony and peace. The slaves behave even when unchained, even when they outnumber their captors. It’s an impressive sight—and completely false, because the slaves have taken over the ship and are merely feigning servility for the American’s benefit.

The image from the story that stuck in my memory involves a razor and a throat. Babo, slave and attendant of the Spanish ship’s captain, prepares to shave his master, chastising the man for shaking so nervously as the blade scrapes his skin. “And yet master knows I never yet have drawn blood,” the slave says, “though it’s true, if master will shake so, I may some of these times.”

That’s more a promise than a warning, as Babo does draw blood short moments later. The scene shows the thin separation between master and slave: in his act of servility, Babo possesses enormous power over his master. That intimate access is a kind of weapon in itself, and the only guard against revolution is the hope that the slave is too beaten down to rebel. But what a foolish hope that is—impossible not to draw blood when two opposing forces are placed in such close contact.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes follows a similar route, showing Caesar and his cadre of ape co-conspirators exploiting the trust placed in them to gather weapons and sabotage the humans (granted, this sometimes amounts to nothing more than a botched shoeshine, but at least it’s a start). All of this leads to an impassioned torch-lit speech from Caesar, who claims the slave’s right to violently overthrow his oppressors and declares his intention to fulfill the prophecy of ape rule that his parents brought with them to the 20th century.

It’s an incredible moment, surreal and savage—talking apes arguing the merits of armed revolt—but the film retreats at the last moment. Rather half-heartedly, the film shows Caesar tempering his rhetoric with benign nonsense, declaring they will dominate with compassion and be humane despite not being human. It’s really just gibberish designed to placate, and was probably tacked on after the scene was finished (we never see Caesar actually say the lines, as they are delivered in a voiceover while the film shows his eyes in close-up). Perhaps some studio executive balked at the prospect of releasing a film that appeared to encourage revolution?

He shouldn’t have been so afraid. I doubt anyone is going to watch this film and feel inspired to beat a politico to death, or anything so dramatic. Besides, as is always the case with the Ape movies, the film’s message is much more desolate than you would first think. In this cycle of oppressors rising and falling, rebellion is eternally necessary and completely impossible. The old slave becomes the new master in a sad parade that marches through history until finally heading right over a cliff in 3955, when the whole planet explodes and puts an end to this farce. Although you can safely say the film’s sympathies lie with the oppressed, you can also say that it doesn’t necessarily see much hope in their revolution. When in doubt, riot, but when in riot, doubt.

This is a despairing film, true, but still one of the liveliest entries in the Ape series, offering a spirited variation on the usual misanthropic gloominess. Perhaps that is because this film is a summing up of the series, and it feels like an apt crescendo to all the lunacy that has preceded it. As the governor explains at one point, the apes are the dark side of humanity. They’re the irrational, wild part of ourselves that we keep shackled up somewhere, and here is where they finally take up arms and demand their rights. There's something remarkably energizing about seeing a monkey with a gun.

The entire Ape series can be seen as one great assault on rationality—and I say that not just because embracing these movies is pretty damn irrational in its own right. The first film offered primitivism as an alternative to scientific progress, and the subsequent films have all confirmed this idea that human history need not progress in a straight line. Instead, we have history as a wheel, with humanity and apes on opposite sides, one rising and the other falling. Obviously, this is a great blow to our egos as the greatest living things ever to exist (I've also been hearing this crazy rumour that the sun doesn't revolve around the Earth...).

We like to consider ourselves the culmination of history. We're the top of the food chain: rational, intelligent creatures, even if we continually counter this image of ourselves with evidence of our own foolish, self-destructive nature. Rational thought fails us, just as rational means like science result in insane ends like the nuclear bomb and Planet of the Apes sequels. Consider this: a dog is a rational creature simply because it does not conspire against itself by devising ways to blow up the planet and destroy all life. It just wants to eat and sleep. What could be more sensible? Humans, by comparison, are just plain nuts.

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