Conquest of the Planet of the Apes isn't the best of sequels nor the worst of sequels, but a few Planet of the Apes fans will enjoy it well enough. This is the first of two sequels directed by J. Lee Thompson, better known for the 1962 production of Cape Fear. Thompson does an admirable job, considering that the film is shot on a relatively limited budget and that the location setting is confined to the Century City Shopping Center development that was being built in Los Angeles in 1972.
Again, we are asked to suspend belief as we advance 20 years into the future to land in 1991, where apes are now widely enslaved by uncaring humans. Returning circus-owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban) explains that some mysterious plague brought back to Earth has wiped out all dogs and cats, so humans began to adopt apes to fill the void. Does this sound preposterous? Of course it does, but that keeps it in synch with the rest of the series.
Since apes are highly intelligent, they soon are trained to take over service occupations and menial tasks. To give it some additional social relevance beyond the obvious slavery references, we see some unemployed workers protesting against the use of apes. Seems to me that I've seen similar complaints lodged against illegal aliens recently.
From Escape from the Planet of the Apes you should remember that the humans are frightened that a super-intelligent talking ape will somehow breed and cause apes to take over the planet and reverse Darwin's theory of evolution. You will also remember that Armando serves as the guardian of the wonder ape child. It seems strange that it takes the authorities so long to catch up with Armando, but it gives Ricardo Montalban an excuse to devise a lame escape plan for Caesar (Roddy McDowall in a welcome comeback to play his own son) and to submit to the authorities who will attempt to torture him to tell the truth with a giant lightbulb. (They were operating on a low budget, remember.)
Conquest does serve as a time capsule of sorts to U.S. life in the 1970s just after the riots in Watts and Detroit shook the nation. Here we have the apes rise up against the human oppressors in riot gear and overcome them impressively. In case the significance of the "slavery" issue is lost, one of the humans who helps Caesar and the impromptu ape army is an African-American official.
Though it's gratifying to see the apes begin to take over the planet, and satisfying to witness the first word spoken by a regular ape for Conquest's Kodak moment, the film relentlessly proceeds rather cheesily. I still can't believe the humans were so stupid to assume that Caesar was dead from the shock treatment without checking his breathing or pulse, and I chuckled at the scenes that show the beginnings of the rebellion.
How does Caesar do it? He just silently gives these apes "the look," and soon they are turning over trash cans or messing up some lady's hair. We must assume that an underground ape movement has begun with apes passing on “the look,” but we never see it fully developed. All of a sudden the apes unite against the human oppressors. Of course it is easier to just have McDowall give "the look" than it is to develop a plausible plot scenario.
Roddy McDowall does admirably with a limited script under his ape makeup and Montalban does what he can with limited screen time, but we know from The Wrath of Khan that Ricardo is capable of much more cheese than he is allowed to display here. Overall, Conquest is a rather ordinary sequel that plays better on the television screen than it did in the theater, considering the tightness of the film budget. Though I didn't feel ripped off like I did after watching Beneath the Planet of the Apes, I felt let down a bit. But the film still allows enough hope to compel me to watch the final chapter, and it's not so bad that I'm turned off all the ape sequels.
Caesar should be back, but who will be the overacting human actor to balance Roddy McDowall's simian talents? They've killed off Charlton Heston and Ricardo Montalban. Is it possible that William Shatner can be lured to the series finale, or how about Max von Sydow? Now that would be a cool showdown!