In the near-future (from where we left off), Simian Kind has been enslaved. The evolved ape son of Cornelius and Zira leads a revolution against mankind to emancipate the apes. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (the "of" should probably be a "for", now that I think of it) is definitely among the better Apes films. Even with various declines in production value, budget, and writing, this entry still maintains enough intelligence to be considered among the "good" apes installments. Also, watching humanity getting their ass handed to them is damn entertaining. I'll often watch this film for that satisfaction alone.
"Conquest" was directed by J. Lee Thompson, who went on to direct the fifth and final entry in the franchise. Despite liking this movie overall, I'm not completely sold on Thompson's direction (foreshadowing, perhaps). Throughout the movie, there are various elements that felt sloppy. For example, there's a jarring cut at the very beginning, from a montage with a full musical score to a scene devoid of music at all-- without bothering so much as to edit the music to fade out/reverberate. There's also some bad ADR, and a handful of those awkward 70's zoom-ins, but otherwise the cinematography is fine. The photography of the city for example really drives in a tone for the film, surrounding the viewer with concrete in virtually every direction. The director also makes a point out of using lots of megaphones and intercoms, making this future feel authoritarian and immobile (both physically and in their dogmatism).
There is however one really potent piece of direction from Thompson, and that is the revolution itself. The scenes of revolt were actually modeled after footage of race riots during civil rights movement, bringing a kind of violent, unnerving reality to this film and a racially charged undercurrent. This film can actually disturb you at times, and it's the film's greatest redeeming quality. I should also credit this film with being the second-most re-watchable Apes movie (the first being "Rise", go figure!), which could be attributed to its fast pacing/short runtime.
Paul Dehn is the writer for the third film in a row, and provides a serviceable amount of intelligence overall despite struggling to keep his act together on smaller details. For example, there are a few basic premises the film presents that are hard to suspend disbelief for. Like the virus that wiped out dogs and cats, the awkward, forced romance between Caesar and Natalie Trundy's Lisa, or how Caesar was unaware of enslaved apes until he got to the city. I mean, it's pretty convenient that Caesar has been shielded from the reality of enslaved-apes for his entire life thus far. That way we can put in extra exposition for the viewer! Small things like just talking about the circus rather than showing it are also a problem. Showing it would have provided a better insight into Caesar's reality and given more emotional weight between him and Armando. I can also see however how that could have come off as silly, and it's evident that the budget was dwindling.
In the long run, you really have to give this film credit for providing a solid foundation for the stellar reboot trilogy about Caesar. Even if Caesar's complexity isn't fully harnessed in this film, it implied a very layered character that would eventually be done justice. Caesar at his best is a character study on perspective, duality, and internal conflict, and there is definitely a presentation of those traits in "Conquest", albeit in a limited form. Also an impressive character is MaCdonald, who is not only likable but complex. There's a part of the movie where he talks about being a descendant of slaves, and this is where the franchises race allegory looks itself in the face. This kind of philosophy will actually help shape the duality within Caesar.
Though the character of Caesar is more complex than Cornelius, this is arguably McDowall's lesser portrayal. He doesn't grasp the full extent of Caesars internal isolation, conflict, and introspection, though he does a good job of reflecting Caesar's anger. Ricardo Montalban as Armando is at times shaky, and there are times when it sounds like he's reading the script for the first time. That being said, he remains charming in his role. Hari Rhodes is stellar as MacDonald, and Don Murray does a fine job as Breck. Natalie Trundy as Lisa is clearly uncomfortable in the ape prosthetics, and is pretty bad, as are many of the ape extras (who inversely seem to be overacting).
I like the costume design quite a bit, since it foreshadows the segregation within the apes' own society. It's a little more minimalistic than the outstanding costume design from the first film, but it complements the industrialistic setting well. The makeup here is not at it's best, but better than at its worst (that works for the whole movie, actually). The dreadful pullover masks from "Beneath" are thankfully gone. There are still lazier ape prosthetics/masks used for the extras when compared to the first film, but there's actually effort put in this time to make sure their eyes aren't caved in and hollow. Without a serviceable budget, it's inevitable that Chamber's makeup would diminish in quality.
The musical score by Tom Scott is actually pretty good. It thrives with a satisfyingly eccentric melodicism, making it a worthy gesture in the footsteps of Jerry Goldsmith.
Despite an often fickle presentation, "Conquest" manages to ride on a handful of strong merits that retain a level of intelligence in the franchise. I may like this film more than most, seeing as how I'm a nihilistic, iconoclastic maniac who finds the downfall of humanity highly satisfying (there might have been a less-scary way to put that), but the film has merits that can be appreciated by anyone nonetheless.