We’re here at long last. From the 30th century to the deepest, darkest part of the 70s, The Planet of the Apes as a franchise has taken quite a few twists and turns in its simple story of apes as stand-ins for how man treats man. But now we’re at the very end. What cataclysmic events await us, past the destruction of earth, time travel, and societal revolution?
Let’s find out together.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)
It’s been slightly over a decade since Caesar’s revolt in Conquest. In that time, humanity has succumbed to nuclear war that has destroyed all of the major cities and most of the human population on Earth. Caesar, gathering together the liberated apes and the sympathetic humans, has created a primitive agrarian society where apes rule over humans but with a certain amount of compassion, using them to teach their children to read and write and to provide a lesson in the fruits of violence.
But when Caesar is troubled by tensions from within the apes and the increased militarism of the gorillas, he decides to travel into the bombed out ruins of New York City, looking for recordings of his long-dead parents, recordings which might reveal the forgotten truth of what happened between apes and men long ago, in the future. But this requires braving a society of slowly-mutating human survivors underground, who have their own reasons to hate and fear the apes.
Right about now the alarm bells go off and all sorts of questions form an easy logjam. In a decade, you ask, how can the world be destroyed and rendered into a setting much like the original apes movies? How can Caesar have lead such a large group out of nuclear holocaust? How could this off-screen Armageddon leave large swaths of farm land untouched? How could the apes, which were still mute and mostly dumb at the end of Conquest, already be expounding on theories of time travel and governing ethics? Why does this sound so terrifyingly similar to the really awful Beneath the Planet of the Apes?
These are good questions, and I have no good answers. The uneasy peace between apes and men makes sense after only a decade from the violence of before, but ape society seems far too advanced, far too structured. The world we find ourselves in is closer to the 2900s of the first two films, not the dystopian 1990s of Conquest. It is almost as if hundreds of years have passed with many of the characters we encountered in Conquest.
That said, it was probably the right choice to do if this was going to be the final film, because it really does bring the whole series full circle. The apes have resegregated into the class structure familiar to us from the original, with themes of dogma and belief and bigotry as ever-present as they were before. What we’re presented with here is what appears to be the characters locked in causality, unable to escape the fate we’ve already seen, tortured by the knowledge that the world that comes is known and doomed.
Which makes the hopeful tone of this movie so surprising, and the one real bright spot of the film. This is a movie of belief that peace can be achieved, that prejudices can be overcome. After so much nihilism of the first four films, the story of Battle is one of optimism born through suffering. Everyone knows they are doomed, but they will do their best to prevent it anyway, and perhaps it will not come to pass.
The film’s much smaller than any of the others, obviously constrained by budget. Most of it is set out in the wilds, with minimal sets and poorer prosthetics than the rest of the series has had. Which makes its climactic battle, where the humans come out of their bombed out subways all post-apocalypse little more than a dusty schoolbus and some guns. It’s unimpressive, and the idea that this battle needs to be there hurts the movie. Maybe there’s something darkly funny or interesting to be found in after the world has ended, the last few people fight shoddy uninteresting little wars. But the movie isn’t quite willing to become that self-aware.
But as a closing chapter, there’s a certain poetic nature to it. We see so clearly the beginnings of the world Heston will land in hundreds of years from then. We see the beginnings of the doomsday cult from Beneath, and the bomb that they are too fearful to fire yet. In one of the final scenes of the film, two of the mutated humans say to each other that the bomb should last to become a symbol of what almost happened to the Earth, so that generations previous don’t make the same mistakes. Is that what happens? Or is it simply setting up the cult we’ve already seen, the ultimate blinking out of our planet?
The movie ends with Caesar and the rest of the apes learning a certain humility through their strife. They are not perfect, with flaws and in-fighting and violent tendencies just as the humans had. It hedges on too aware, to have the apes discover what we already knew, considering how stubborn self-destruction plays so heavily into the themes of these films already. But they try to blaze a new path, one that leads to a better place.
Do they succeed? The film ends with the Lawgiver, the holy figure we see in the first two apes movies in statues, giving a history lesson to ape and human children alike. We are told this is the 27th century, hundreds of years in the future and harmony is still foremost in this new hybrid society. But we never see the 30th century where the first film takes place. And we’re never told if this has really become a new path, hopeful and with a future, or if these people are doomed to the narrow-mindedness and eradication we’ve already traversed through as a viewer. That unanswered question, tenuous and open, ends the apes films much as they began, on a pointed (if preachy) question to the audience. Despite its faults, I can think of no better way to end it.