Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)


As the Planet of the Apes franchise entered its final film, the series had lost a lot of its commercial lustre. The last few pictures had seen increasingly diminished returns and by the time Battle for the Planet of the Apes entered production, 20th Century Fox saw fit to label it the last film in the series. The surprisingly dark and violent fourth entry had cost the series a crucial younger audience, so for this last hurrah the studio mandated that it return to the family friendly adventure and action of the first three. Screenwriter Paul Dehn, who had shepherded the franchise from the second film forward found himself ill and unable to contribute a script for the final entry, so Fox approached husband and wife team John William and Joyce Hooper Corrington. The pair was largely known for their work on daytime soap operas, but they had recently seen great success in Hollywood after having written the scripts for films like The Omega Man, based on the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend (which, yes, was also the source material for the Will Smith movie of the same name), and the early Martin Scorsese film Boxcar Bertha.

The Corrington’s script would draw heavily on biblical parables, following the recently liberated apes as they built a sort of Garden of Eden society in the woods after nuclear war takes down the rest of the human race. Remnants of humanity live among them, but these humans are treated as lesser than the apes and the whole arrangement is a tenuous construction thanks to the machinations of the militaristic, human-hating gorilla Aldo (Claude Akins), who speaks in the third person so as to signify to the audience that he’s an idiot. Caesar (Roddy McDowall) is still running the show, however, and things come to a head when sub-dwelling humans living in the bombed out ruins of a nearby city discover the apes settlement and set out to destroy it.

Easily the weakest of the original Planet of the Apes films, Battle for the Planet of the Apes ultimately has nothing to say and little more to show. The story is threadbare in the extreme, and the conflict between the humans and the apes is given short shrift compared to the rest of the movies in the series. Aldo is a ridiculous villain, a walking cartoon without anything approaching a well-rounded personality, while Caesar’s world view has seen such a massive shift in tone from the previous film that he might as well be someone different entirely. There are also huge gaps in logic: why do the city-dwelling humans live in radioactive squalor when they make it very clear that they can exit the ruins whenever they want? It’s never addressed.

For what it’s worth, the action sequences remain impressive given the much smaller budget, and there’s something undeniably compelling about the idea of humans and apes living together in fragile peace, but the film as a whole just doesn’t work. The Corrington’s script lacks the attention to character that Dehn had displayed time and again in his increasingly bold sequel stories, and the themes of the movie are cast aside to often in favor of simplistic plot development, resulting in a benign, generic story that ends the Apes saga with a pitiful whimper.

In the years following the conclusion of the series Fox tried to move the franchise over to television, first with the simply titled Planet of the Apes series in 1974 and then again with the animated Return to the Planet of the Apes in 1975. Neither series lasted past its first season and neither made much of an impact in the grand scheme of things. Still though, the legacy of Planet of the Apes is undeniably strong. Still held up as one of the best science fiction stories in film (and rightly so), the series has left its mark on pop culture. It’s still going strong today, albeit in vastly modernized form which I will address later on, and the various books, video games and collectables it sired throughout its years remain proof of its longevity. If there’s one thing above all others that stands as a testament to the series’ worth however, it’s that final haunting shot that ended the original installment way back in 1968. Few images have permeated the public consciousness quite so completely as that final chilling scene and that, if nothing else, will forever mark Planet of the Apes as a landmark piece of fiction.