Judge Dennis Prince believes the real battle for the Planet of the Apes took place on the financial ledger of 20th Century Fox circa 1973—but he's no whistle-blower.
The final chapter in the incredible "Apes" saga!
In 1968, movie audiences sat stunned and even dumbfounded when they watched Charlton Heston being pursued, probed, and verbally prosecuted by intelligent apes. Thanks to a breakthrough in foam latex appliances, makeup wizard John Chambers provided a convincing (for its day) method of transforming human actors into talking apes. The success of the picture—and largely of the makeup effect—spawned further adventures on the apes' planet as well as back on Earth. Producer Arthur P. Jacobs (Doctor Dolittle) continued to deliver "ape pictures" to satisfy audiences yet found increasingly less and less money offered from 20th Century Fox to achieve each subsequent installment. In what would be the final picture, both for the Apes series and for Jacobs himself (he passed away in 1974), Battle for the Planet of the Apes was ushered forth, yet it clearly showed Fox's lack of budgetary support: What should have been a cataclysmic standoff between man and ape…wasn't.
Facts of the Case
Following the ape uprising that tilted control over the Earth to the apes (see Conquest of the Planet of the Apes), it seems that nuclear troubles still abound. After a posthumous exposition by the Lawgiver (John Houston, Casino Royale) about the benefits of apes and humans coexisting harmoniously, we flash back to the reign of Caesar (Roddy McDowall, Fright Night), who leads a colony of dominant apes and subservient humans. It's a small commune that lives in a wooded area, inhabiting tree houses and utilizing crude tools. If you're wondering why this isn't a thriving, albeit demographically upturned, futuristic society as seen in the burning yet still standing cityscape from Conquest, well, it seems there was yet another "great war" that reduced the earth to a burned, twisted, and partly radioactive remnant of mankind's last great metropolis. This is the reason Caesar's minions are so few, consisting of a handful of chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, and humans (there are other reasons which will be discussed shortly). Caesar has determined to establish a greater equality between ape and man, and, at the urging of his own human assistant, MacDonald (Austin Stoker, Assault on Precinct 13), he leads a trek to the radioactive forbidden city in order to uncover the words and images of his parents, Cornelius and Zira, which he believes will provide the needed insight to achieve man-and-ape equality. Caesar, MacDonald, and philosophical advisor Virgil (Paul Williams, Phantom of the Paradise) begin their journey, unaware they're walking into a nest of mutated humans led by Governor Kolp (Severn Darden, The Day of the Dolphin). Meanwhile, the leader of the gorillas, General Aldo (Claude Akins, Movin' On), grows impatient with Caesar's peaceful ramblings and believe the only way apes will survive in their minimal world is to destroy all humans. It all culminates in a standoff of ape versus man and ape versus ape in a final battle for supremacy over the new planet of the apes.
Well, it may have sounded good on paper, but this final chapter of the apes saga suffered mightily in its execution. While each picture received less and less money from Fox, Battle was actually offered a tad more than the superior Conquest. Yet that fourth installment succeeded so well in large part due to the cheap and easy availability of the slick Century City that was erected literally across the street from the Fox studios. Leveraging it as a major set piece for the ape uprising on a futuristic Earth was nothing short of genius: it probably cost practically nothing to dress for production. Unfortunately, the choice to set Battle in a more naturalistic setting (it was actually shot on the Fox Ranch) proved too costly, thanks to the need to transport equipment and actors and erect several oversized tree houses. One look at the apes on display and you'll see that John Chambers's magnificent work has largely been reduced to pull-over masks for the vast majority of apes in attendance. Of the lead apes—Caesar, Virgil, Aldo, and a couple of others—the composite makeup appliances seem clumsily applied, usually giving us easy view of the actors' mouths and blackened teeth. And perhaps the picture would have fared better if pitched as something along the lines of Unrest on the Planet of the Apes, because a "cataclysmic battle" this is not. In that respect the picture fails; it merely limps along as if it desperately wants to be put out of its own misery. The ape enclave is populated by probably less than 50 or so residents (plus maybe 20 humans), and the mutants' underground complex consists of the L.A. sewage treatment system, attended to by about 40 barely made-up "mutants." Interestingly, the mutants have found a cache of all-black clothing for uniforms, while the apes sport the same costumes we've seen since the first two pictures (and how they're able to manufacture the various cotton and leather ensembles yet remain unable to build something more elaborate that a tree house is a perpetual mystery to me). Many Apes fans cite this as the worst apes afterthought caught on film, indicating it would have been better to end the big-screen exploits with Conquest. Agreed.
This latest DVD release is done so in conjunction with yet another big Apes boxed-set offering, that being the Planet of the Apes: The Legacy Collection. Oddly enough, this picture—arguably the weakest of the series—fares best in this new release in that it gains a spiffy anamorphic transfer, has an enhanced Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track, and is presented in the 96-minute extended cut (previously only available on a Japan-only laserdisc release). The new transfer looks considerably brighter than 2000's Evolution release, and the contrast and detail levels are likewise improved. The 5.1 audio track is a definite improvement over the previous release, with stereo separation and directional effects being handled rather competently. And die-hard fans who embrace this sequel despite its missteps will enjoy the extra 10 minutes on hand, which extend a few scenes here and there but most importantly restore the subplot in which Kolp instructs aide Alma (France Nuyen, The Joy Luck Club) to detonate the surviving Alpha-Omega bomb should the apes prevail over the mutant army (and this, of course, extends the ending of the picture as Mendez pleads with her to ignore Kolp's order and preserve the bomb as a symbol for peace). There are no interesting extras on the disc save for the assembly of other Apes film trailers plus the trailer for the bastard offspring of the franchise, Tim Burton's horrid 2001 remake.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although it is definitely an underachiever in its realm, this isn't to say that Battle for the Planet of the Apes is all bad—it's not. If viewed as if it were intended as a made-for-TV production, the film is generally enjoyable. It has all the earmarks of a TV movie: generic location shots, simple sets, mediocre matte paintings, and plenty of heavy-handed morality. Still, if expectations are appropriately calibrated down several notches, the picture works much better, especially if you approach it as a sort of extended pilot movie for the subsequent TV series.
If you're a hardened fan of the Apes series and haven't yet seen the extended version of the picture, then this new Battle for the Planet of the Apes—Extended Edition DVD is definitely for you. If, however, you have seen the film before and considered it to be a disappointment overall, this new release isn't likely to change your mind. Even at its present value price, you might be better served if you pass.
20th Century Fox will forever be deemed guilty as charged for unceremoniously gutting their otherwise fine franchise with this tepid last installment. The cast and crew are pardoned of any wrongdoing, this court recognizing their best attempts to uphold the series against all odds.
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