The international popularity Planet Of The Apes film series with science fiction fans is all the more impressive when you learn that said series was largely reverse-engineered into existence. Planet Of The Apes was designed to be a stand-alone film and the first sequel had a climax designed to end the storyline conclusively… and yet the series went on for another three films.
The first three sequels worked in large part thanks to the inventiveness of screenwriter Paul Dehn, whom Schlockmania considers to be the auteur of the sequels. Time and again, he was able to devise new lore that expanded the world and themes of the series. Unfortunately, the series would run into trouble with its final film, Battle For The Planet Of The Apes, when Dehn was sidelined by illness and could only contribute a storyline instead of a full script. The resulting film would go awry for more than one reason and is widely considered by fans to be the least of the series.
Battle For The Planet Of The Apes begins several years on from the events of Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes, with an ape civilization building itself in the wilderness with a handful of humans they’ve established a peaceful compromise with. Caesar (Roddy McDowell) presides over this group as its leader but he has to deal with tension from Aldo (Claude Akins), a militaristic gorilla who hates humans and wants them subjugated under his own rule.
In need of guidance, Caesar travels into the forbidden zone with human ally McDonald (Austin Stoker) and learned orangutan Virgil (Paul Williams) to find a video record of his parents. Unfortunately, this earns the ire of the mutants who reside in that area: their leader, Governor Kolp (Severn Darden), takes this as an act of aggression and plots war against the ape enclave. This sets the stage for a battle where Caesar must defend his home from mutants while also quelling the revolt plotted by Aldo.
The above synopsis probably makes Battle For The Planet Of The Apes sound more interesting and layered than it actually is. The biggest problems lie in the script: it was penned by John and Joyce Corrington, the same team who adapted I Am Legend into The Omega Man, with Dehn reportedly punching in on rewrites later in the process.
The Corringtons have gone on record disliking Dehn’s contributions, namely the film’s coda, but the script has bigger issues than those tweaks: it feels different from the rest of the series, with simplistic characterizations and on-the-nose dialogue that lack the sophistication of Dehn’s past scripts. Characters, particularly Caesar, act in contradictory ways designed to fulfill the plotting rather than allowing character behavior to shape the plot’s direction. Things happen too fast, motivations are sketchy and the storyline often feels like a rough draft rushed into production as a result.
Battle For The Planet Of The Apes is further injured by weak production values. The sequels’ budgets had gotten cheaper with each entry but it got so bad here that the result looks more like an episode of the Planet Of The Apes t.v. series than a feature film in terms of scale. Much of the film is shot outdoors on what looks like a ranch with some backlot sets and a power plant doubling for the forbidden zone. Despite fine ‘scope-format cinematography from Richard H. Kline, the slender nature of the budget shows onscreen and betrays the intended scope of the storylinr.
On the plus side, there is a fine cast: McDowell is excellent, even when the material falters, and he gets solid support on the heroic side of things from future Assault On Precinct 13 star Stoker and Williams. On the villainous side, Darden makes for a creepy mutant leader and Akins brings a lot of gusto to an underwritten ape baddie. Also worthy of note are Lew Ayres as the wise ape in charge of the armory and John Huston in a cameo as the series’ fabled Lawgiver.
Most importantly, there is energetic and stylish direction from Thompson, who also helmed Conquest. It seems like he’s determined to overpower the weak script and budget through sheer energy here: he gives the film a quick tempo in editing, mobile camerawork and energetic staging of battles, particularly the mutant/ape conflagration. He’s often inventive in how he navigates his way around the project’s financial limitations: note how he and Kline make crafty use of shadows and stark shafts of light to bring visual interest to the power plant doubling as the mutants’ lair.
Ultimately, the fine cast and brisk filmmaking can’t disguise that Battle For The Planet Of The Apes was one trip too many to the creative well for the Apes film series. All too often, it feels like a quickie rehash of elements and themes served better elsewhere in the series. That said, there’s enough fun and energy that diehard fans of the series might glean a bit of enjoyment as long as they keep their expectations in check.