Three down, two to go! We’ve found a new life with the series by putting it back on an Earth we can recognize, with the Apes being cut down from the oppressor to the fugitive. Now only one remains. What comes next? Darkness and violence.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
The year is 1991. A disease (foretold by Zira in Escape) has killed off the world’s domesticated pets. Apes began to be kept as pets, but as they grew more intelligent they evolved into a slave labor force for humans who grew more and more complacent, kept in castes and ruled over by an oppressive police state.
Ricardo Montalban has remained true to his word and raised the last intelligent ape, Caesar, in secret. Caesar has been raised in seclusion, only now when he reaches adulthood being introduced to this world of men. Caesar almost blows his cover when he shouts at police officers who a beating an ape. Montalban takes the blame, being arrested and leaving Caesar to try to make it in this new, vicious world.
Caesar ends up going through the system of ape conditioning, training the apes through brutality and oppression to be docile slaves. Those who fight back are tortured or killed. The good slaves are sold in a public auction. Caesar, playing dumb and docile, ends up being bought by Governor Breck, who recognizes Caesar’s intelligence and wants to keep a close eye on him, always fearful of a potential revolt.
Montalban is tortured by Breck, revealing before he commits suicide that he had been raising Zira and Cornelius’ child, dying before he reveals who Caesar is. Breck, convinced that the last intelligent ape is a threat to all humanity, creates a list of all apes that have exhibited signs of rebellion. They’re all to be rounded up and reconditioned or killed. Caesar, now in Breck’s employ, hears of this and of the death of his mentor. The seeds are sown for the uprising Breck so feared.
Conquest is a dark film, far more serious than the last three. The dystopia we’re presented with is part slavery and in part recognizable as our own war on terror world, with suspected dissidents locked up without due process and tortured in ways that feel hauntingly familiar to anyone who has been socially aware in the 00s. And when the ape uprising happens, it’s brutal and violent and the savagery of both sides is unsettling. In the end, intelligent or not, both sides are animals.
The film ends with Caesar, triumphant, standing in judgement of Breck. Buildings burn behind him, being looked upon by the apes and the one human who sympathized with the apes. Caesar is asked to show mercy. What he instead delivers is the inevitable reality of the long, causal loop of the films, a chilling monologue, perhaps the best moment in the entire series:
Where there is fire, there is smoke. And in that smoke, from this day forward, my people will crouch, and conspire, and plot, and plan for the inevitable day of Man’s downfall. The day when he finally and self-destructively turns his weapons against his own kind. The day of the writing in the sky, when your cities lie buried under radioactive rubble! When the sea is a dead sea, and the land is a wasteland out of which I will lead my people from their captivity! And we will build our own cities, in which there will be no place for humans except to serve our ends! And we shall found our own armies, our own religion, our own dynasty! And that day is upon you NOW!
Conquest is a movie about suffering, about the impossibility of peace through oppression, a film that is just as smart and relevant today as it was in the early 70s. If Escape was the contemplative side of this concept, Conquest is the passionate heart, angry and outraged and lashing out.
And it all rests upon Caesar, proud of his heritage and yearning for his freedom, pushed by circumstance to a place beyond compassion where only rage exists. It plays out in something akin to high tragedy, knowing that for all the sacrifices his parents and his mentor made, we are lead back to the same place where we began, man undone by his own dark nature. It seems so preventable, so unnecessary, that it makes the brutality on both sides all the sadder. There is no happy ending here.
Perhaps, just perhaps, there will be one in the final movie of the series.