The Planet of the Apes film franchise consists of, to date, eight films released between 1968 and 2014. Each week, venerable Apes mega-fan Max Robinson and inquisitive newcomer Dylan Roth journey to the center of the Planet of the Apes experience, one movie at a time. This is Turn Around, Bright Eyes.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
Directed by Don Taylor
SYNOPSIS: Hurled back in time by the calamitous destruction of the planet, ape scientists Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) find themselves in the 1970s, where man still rules over the Earth. Captured by the U.S. government, Zira and Cornelius become prisoners, celebrities, and then prey, as mankind learns more about the apes and the frightening future that they represent.
Max: Escape is, I swear to you all, a seriously good movie that’s only really hampered by some occasionally lousy, of-the-time special effects. It’s as good as, if not better than, in many respects, the first film. It’s a testament to how solid this is that it’s 80% “lighthearted ’70s comedy” and 20% “the most unbelievably bleak shit in the world” and it all works.
Dylan: This is truly the Star Trek IV of the Apes franchise.
Max: Is that the one with the whales?
Dylan: Apes III: The One with the Humans. Really, though, like Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, EscApe is both a complete sidestep away from its predecessors and also a wonderful use of the central premise and characters. And like The Voyage Home, it’s a much, much better movie than its premise would suggest. It’s the product of a time when sequels were expected to be smaller and cheaper, not bigger and louder, which often meant having to take some very big story risks. Could you imagine if the next Avengers movie was just, like, Hawkeye and Widow goofing off at the mall or something?
Max: I CAN IMAGINE A LOT. Escape from the Planet of Apes really leans on the bones of the original film in a context we haven’t seen. It’s interesting to see that, given how much The Force Awakens has been criticized for restaging the original Star Wars, sequels have been doing this historically for a long time. Beneath is kind of a distorted version of the events of Planet of the Apes. Zira, Cornelius and the dearly departed Dr. Milo (choked to death by a gorilla!) are treated like dumb animals when they arrive on ’70s Earth; Cornelius and Zira are subjected to a government tribunal, albeit one with a far more just outcome than Taylor’s kangaroo court proceedings. The apes even have a human nemesis in the form of Dr. Otto Hasslein, whose fear of the future represented by the “ape-tronauts” mirrors that of Dr. Zaius.
Dylan: Zira and Cornelius get their own Zira and Cornelius analogs, Drs. Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman) and Stevie Branton (Natalie Trundy), who start out as their keepers and end up becoming their advocates as the apes evade persecution. But while Lewis and Stevie are both pretty bland characters, Zira and Cornelius benefit greatly from their newfound spotlight and are revealed to be just as charming and textured in large doses as they were in their previous supporting roles.
Max: Plus this movie is like “yo, fuck subtlety,” so we get wacky farce like Zira and Cornelius buying new human outfits or Zira getting wasted on white wine. Escape is really funny! Which is good, because it makes the last third significantly more palatable. Like Kim and Kanye, the world is not content to simply let Cornelius and Zira be Cool and Great, and so they go from guests of the State to wrongfully hunted fugitives.
Dylan: Act One is a backwards retelling of the original Apes, Act Two is a broad comedy about our heroes having celebrity misadventures, and then Act Three is straight tragedy, and I mean that in the classical sense in that everyone dies. Zira, Cornelius, an ape infant, and the villainous Dr. Hasslein are all shot to death in a mostly wordless sequence set in a rusted-out shipyard.
Max: On this viewing, I was struck by the fact that the film opts to set the very last scene in a HUMAN ruin. The dank naval yard is an interesting visual echo of Cornelius’ archeological site, the fallen Statue of Liberty, and even the ruins of old New York that the mutants live in. The key crucial elements of the Planet of the Apes franchise, in my mind, are: 1) the powerful spectacle of apes shooting guns, and 2) an extremely downer ending. Escape delivers on this!
Dylan: And unlike Beneath the Planet of the Apes, whose ending is both sudden and also a massive nihilistic “fuck you” to the audience, Escape’s final twist is a knockout. Toward the end of the film, Zira gives birth to a child whom the government wants to exterminate, for fear that this progeny will lead the ape revolution. At the same time, an ordinary primative ape also has a child at their circus hideout. The fact that the children have been swapped is predictable, sure, but it’s not at all telegraphed to the audience. Though I was pretty certain that the swap had occurred, that actually made the film’s final minutes more thrilling. Since Zira, Cornelius, and the child with whom they traveled didn’t have to survive the story, the stakes felt higher.
Max: The looming threat of mankind’s ultimate self-destruction hangs over the first two films, this installment flips the script so we’re left with the seeming inevitability of an ape revolution. It lacks the sucker punch of the original film’s iconic ending, but screenwriter Paul Dehn sets up some stuff he’ll explore in the scripts for the next three films (to uhhh varying degrees of success). BUT ENOUGH OF ALL THAT: Dylan…which Ape Was Your Favorite Ape?
Dylan: Of the three speaking apes in the film? As charming as Cornelius is in this film, Escape from the Planet of the Apes absolutely belongs to Zira. Kim Hunter gets to demonstrate a lot of range in this, her final turn as the character. My favorite Ape performance so far in the series.
Max: Yeah I’ll agree here. Sal Mineo’s Dr. Milo is memorable, Roddy McDowall basically becomes the face of the franchise from here on out, but Kim Hunter really shines here. Watching Zira crawl to Cornelius’s corpse before she dies made me choke up. Special honorable mention for the late great Ricardo Montalban’s role in the film as the cravat-wearing circus owner Armando, an honorable ally to the apes who speaks exclusively in bombastic nonsense.
NEXT WEEK: *Jack White voice* CAAAAHHHHHNNNNNQUEEEEEST!