Thursday, June 28, 2007

Afro-Punk Apes

The cinema side of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Afro-Punk Festival kicks off tomorrow with a novel choice, 1972's Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth in the popular Apes series. I first saw it on a "Go Apes!" double feature with the fifth and final entry, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). Even as an eight-year-old, I realized that there something deep and disturbing going on beneath Conquest's surface. The Apes films had an interestingly circular structure, the original and Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) heading inexorably toward a world-ending scenario, with Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971) cleverly writing itself out of this fail-safe trap by returning lead apes Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter, both terrific under John Chambers' famous makeup) to our own world. That film ends with their deaths--the Apes films were fascinatingly grim for family-sold entertainment. Their son, Caesar (McDowall again), is the focus of Conquest, which is set in a chilly urban environment of the near-future, where docile apes have replaced now-extinct cats and dogs as pets and helpmates for humans.

Caesar, who can talk and reason, but under the tutelage of his human protector Armando (Ricardo Montalban) forces himself to remain silent and obedient, is appalled by the slave-like state of his fellows. In the prior Apes films, the apes were apes, with homo sapiens tendencies and mannerisms. But in Conquest, they are clearly identified with a roiling urban underclass, as the Black Panthers and other protest groups took their campaigns against injustice to the streets. There is very little monkey business in the film, one of the more pensive directed by the declining J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone and the original Cape Fear); Caesar, who is revealed as the son of the talking apes who were thought to threaten the human status quo in the last film, is tortured by the white fascist overlords. Gaining the upper hand, and leading the other apes in armed revolt, he considers, but refuses to heed, the calm-and-reasoning advice of a black character, a government aide (Hari Rhodes) who is cautiously sympathetic to his cause. The ending is chilling: As the city burns, Caesar, forcefully voiced by McDowall, announces that Earth is now the "planet of the apes." You could hear a pin drop in the theater at that one.

Battle, alas, doesn't follow through on its class and race struggle themes, and is more of a safe kids' film, a retreat from this unexpected rush toward a sociopolitical abyss. Ape-d out, I never watched the short-lived TV show. The less said about Tim Burton's hapless, thoughtless 2001 updating, the better. I'm sure the organizers of the Afro-Punk Festival regard Conquest as camp. But I suspect Caesar will have the last laugh as the film reaches its apocalyptic end.

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