Franchise Files: Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

It’s difficult to say just why Escape from the Planet of the Apes, rushed out a mere year after the previous installment, works so well. Maybe it seems better mainly by comparison with Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Maybe it’s the novelty of complete departure from the previously established formula. Because Escape doesn’t just avoid retreading the plots of the previous two movies, it escapes into an entirely different genre.

If there is an example of a franchise continuing from a deader dead-end than Planet of the Apes did between its second and third movies, I am not aware of it. Beneath ended with the complete and total destruction of earth, and the words, “In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe, lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.” How do you make a movie about the Planet of the Apes after the Planet of the Apes blows up?

The solution is so elegant that it seems obvious once you’ve heard it, and it manages to shift the focus of the rest of the franchise onto the titular apes rather than the human protagonists of the previous films. And not just any apes, but (in this case) Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter), the heart and soul of the first film. The result is a perfect mirror image of the original (that’s the formula part I alluded to earlier).

Escape begins with my favorite scene in any of the original Apes movies, and it works flawlessly the way I first saw it. I began it completely cold, after watching the first two films, with no prior knowledge of what the movie would, or even could, be about. The opening shot is of open ocean beyond the coastline, which looks like where the first movie ended and the second began. Then, a helicopter flies into view, which is immediately different. Where is this? When is this? The chopper pilot spots something in the water, and radios back to base, mobilizing an army unit to recover the object. It is a spaceship, very like the craft from the first two films, but beat-up and charred.

escape1Three minutes into the movie, the spacecraft has been hauled to shore and three generals have arrived at the beach to greet it. Amphibious soldiers in diving suits pop the hatch and help three humanoids dressed in full spacesuits out of the ship and onto dry land as the generals step pompously forward. They salute, and the leader says, “Welcome, gentlemen, to the United St-” And then his voice dies in his throat. The camera cuts back to the astronauts, who have just removed their helmets to reveal three apes, including Cornelius and Zira. The music (tense, but with a psychedelic beat underneath) cuts in as the credits begin. It’s an awesome twist beginning.

What we finally learn, as soon as the apes start talking to each other, is that Cornelius, Zira, and their companion Dr. Milo somehow salvaged Taylor’s original ship, repaired it, and launched it before Taylor accidentally blew up the planet. Their escape was so narrow that they witnessed the explosion, and then they followed Taylor’s original trajectory in reverse, taking them back in time to a point several years after Taylor’s initial departure. We are given to understand that Milo is the brains behind their space travel venture (which explains just enough, if you don’t think about it too hard). The three decide to exercise caution in what they reveal to the humans and when, and at first they don’t let anyone know that they can talk. As a result, they are taken to an animal lab for testing and study.

escape2This leads to some humorous scenes where the apes astound the scientists with their intelligence, all the while smirking at each other, but Zira grows impatient with the testing and spills the beans. However, before they can be moved out of the facility, Dr. Milo is tragically killed by a savage gorilla in the next cage, cementing his status as a mere plot device. Everyone is properly saddened and horrified, but he is quickly forgotten as the apes become celebrities in 1970s America, enjoying effectively the opposite of what Taylor had experienced in their society in the first film.

But it isn’t all dinner parties, interviews, and shopping sprees. Dr. Hasslein, the brilliant mind behind the first two human expeditions, is heading a government investigation into these strange beings from the future, and he suspects that there are things Cornelius and Zira aren’t telling. He is, of course, quite right. They do eventually reveal how the earth is destroyed, but they’ve decided not to reveal a great deal about how humans are treated in their society. However, they still say enough to set off alarm bells in Hasslein’s head.

His suspicions are confirmed when he gets Zira drunk and coerces the whole story out of her, on tape, of how she experimented on and even vivisected humans as part of her research. This is the evidence he needs to establish the apes as a clear and present danger to the future of humanity via temporal paradox. See, it turns out that Zira is pregnant, and Hasslein (naturally) assumes that their offspring somehow precipitates the rise of apes and the decline of humanity. He mobilizes the American government to terminate the pregnancy, but the apes manage to escape with the help of Dr. Dixon and Dr. Branton, the first people that befriended them after their arrival.

escape3The two briefly hide out with a circus, where Zira’s baby is born, but they are then forced to flee again. Hasslein and his forces corner them on-board an abandoned ship, and the small family is murdered, husband, wife, and baby. Confirming the death of the young chimp, Hasslein breathes a sigh of relief. However, the audience learns that, unbeknownst to anyone, Zira switched her baby with a newborn chimpanzee from the circus, leaving her own baby with Armando, the circus owner played by Ricardo Montalban. In the film’s final seconds, the baby chimp begins to repeat the word “Mama” over and over again.

As much of a bummer as the bleak apocalyptic conclusions of the previous two movies are, they can’t really hold a candle to the more localized tragedy of seeing two favorite characters and their baby gunned down in cold blood in order to save humanity, which is ultimately doomed anyway. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Escape on any lists of great time-travel movies, but that’s what it is, complete with the classic “time cannot be rewritten” theme typical of the more fatalistic examples of the genre.

And yet, despite its stark conclusion, this is easily the most light-hearted of the Apes movies, with far more comedy than any of the other films. It even has an upbeat montage scene! The apes go shopping and dress up in ’70s fashions! There are parties! Reporters follow them everywhere and laugh at their jokes! Perhaps that just makes the ending feel even darker. This is also, in case it wasn’t already apparent, easily the campiest Apes film of the series. And I mean that in the best possible way. Unlike the movie where hideous telepathic mutants wear “pretty human” masks and worship a phallic nuclear bomb, here that’s a feature, not a bug.

The most interesting thing (to me) about the direction this film takes lies in Dr. Hasslein’s response to the apes’ revelations about the future. Although, on the surface, the franchise appears to have toned down its consistently strong anti-nuclear message, it is still very much present in Hasslein’s (and the government’s) insane tunnel vision regarding the apes.

No one in the movie, least of all Dr. Hasslein, ever questions that the apes are from earth’s future, and know what they’re talking about. In fact, Hasslein becomes obsessed with changing the future they describe. But, even though Cornelius reveals that apes rose to dominate men because of humanity’s violent tendencies, and they learn that the planet is eventually destroyed by a nuke, the authorities completely fail to respond to this revelation. Nuclear disarmament is never even mentioned or discussed in any way.These are the “maniacs” that Charlton Heston’s Taylor rails against so memorably at the end of Planet of the Apes. Even when brought face-to-face with the inevitable consequences of nuclear proliferation, it doesn’t even occur to them to act.

escape4Instead, they become fixated on the apes’ experimentation on human subjects in the future in the most absurdly literal way. This aspect of ape society from the first film was always intended as a somewhat heavy-handed critique of human experiments on animals, but in the world of the film this revelation does not prompt any sudden epiphanies about animal cruelty among the humans. On the contrary, it strengthens their resolve to do whatever is necessary to maintain the status quo of human dominion over the earth.

Speaking of which, this is probably the film’s biggest missed opportunity. The original movie featured an extensive sub-plot in which Cornelius faced a charge of heresy for contradicting the apes’ creationist scriptures with his theory of evolution. It’s hard to imagine that a highly-evolved ape from the future could drop into American society without igniting a very similar religious firestorm. Instead, religion, which features heavily in both of the previous installments, is conspicuously absent from this one.

Of course, even though both the creationist dogma of the apes and the mutants’ veneration of the doomsday bomb are thinly-veiled critiques of religious beliefs, and of religion itself, the veneer of cheesy science-fiction provides just enough distance to avoid obvious offense. But, sci-fi conceit or no, a film set in contemporary America could not hope to deal with religion without raising precisely the same hackles that it would no doubt have been satirizing, which could have spelled a very swift and sudden death for a franchise that was (somehow) regarded by audiences as family entertainment.

So, a bit counter-intuitively, moving the story from a non-human society in the distant future directly into our own backyard somehow ends up making the film’s social critiques feel a bit toothless by comparison to its predecessors. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t, as promised, the hands-down best of the original Ape sequels, and almost worth having suffered through Beneath the Planet of the Apes to get to.

~ by Jared on April 28, 2014.

One Response to “Franchise Files: Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)”

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