Escape from the Planet of the Apes

Dir: Don Taylor, 1971. Starring: Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Bradford Dillman, Natalie Trundy. Science Fiction.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes

Once you can get past the absurdity of the set-up of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the movie turns out to be the best of the sequels to the original brilliant sci-fi film Planet of the Apes. To recap, in that first film, an American astronaut, Taylor (Charlton Heston) traveled through space and returned to earth deep into the planet’s future where apes ruled and humans were just stinky wild mutes. In the less exciting but still watchable first sequel, Beneath The Planet of Apes, another astronaut, Brent (James Franciscus) follows Taylor into the future as ape hostility towards man is growing. Brent and Taylor finally meet up in an underground city where humanoids worship an atom bomb. Eventually apes attack and a dying Heston sets off the bomb, destroying earth and seemingly putting an end to the franchise. But, like Rocky III, the third film found a fresh take on the story and turns out to have a lot of fun on its own terms.

In this one, to the shock of the world, three apes in space suits land on present-day Earth (a very groovy early 1970s) in Taylor’s spacecraft. It turns out it’s archaeologist Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and his wife, animal (human) psychologist Zira (Kim Hunter), the two apes who risked their careers to help Taylor in the first film, along with the brilliant Dr. Milo (Rebel Without a Cause’s Sal Mineo). (Okay, so get over the set-up.) The three apes somehow salvaged Taylor’s ship from the bottom of a lake, managed to re-blast-off, and while watching the earth’s destruction from the sky, were sent into a time warp back to modern day. Silly. But now the fun starts....

As expected the world is shocked by these talking apes. Milo is killed by a brute gorilla in a zoo but Cornelius and Zira charm a presidential committee and soon become celebrities. They're befriended by a zoo scientist couple, Branton (Natalie Trundy, who played different roles in three of the Ape sequels. She was married to the series producer Arthur P. Jacobs.) and Lewis Dixan (Bradford Dillman), who help introduce them to proper society with shopping sprees on Rodeo Drive and parties in their Beverly Hills penthouse, making them the year’s it-couple. Zira's knack for honesty has her slowly revealing a little too much information; first she tells the commission that they come from the future where apes rule over man. Then she lets it get out that she is pregnant with a baby monkey. Later the paranoid Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden), the White House’s top science advisor (and to make him more creepy, he has a slight German accent), gets her drunk, and she reveals the Earth’s eventual destruction. She is then drugged and lets out all the nasty details about apes' horrible treatment of humans. He convinces the government to lock up the apes, knowing now that their offspring could one day lay the foundation for apes' rise on Earth’s power scale. It’s up to Cornelius and Zira to escape from the planet of humans if they want to save themselves, and more importantly, their baby. Luckily, they briefly find refuge in a traveling circus run by the charismatic Senor Armando (the terrific Ricardo Montalban). And in the Ape flicks tradition, it all leads to a shocking ending (with another nice twist).

Though Escape from the Planet of the Apes was a jump in quality from its predecessor, its budget dropped and it often shows. Those amazing sets that the first film had are lost and now most of the interiors are obviously sets (though the final scene on an abandoned ship in the San Pedro Harbor is pretty cool). Jerry Goldsmith returns with another effective soundtrack with callbacks to the landmark score he composed for the first film. And the ape makeup is still stunning, aided by wonderful performances from McDowall and Hunter who, even under the latex, are the most believable performers in the cast. Director Don Taylor had been a journeyman television director who made the jump to the big screen with Escape; he would go on to do a few more features, including Damien: Omen II, before returning to TV movies. In actuality, Escape was quickly shot and kind of a cynical cash-in by producer Jacobs; the odds were stacked against it and it could have been a forgotten cheapie. It’s a wonder it’s such a nice piece of entertainment with both both humor and action--and even heart. It should also be mentioned that the script is by Paul Dehn, writer of all the sequels, who managed to weave through the implausibilities and make the story believable in the end (he was a total pro, having done The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Goldfinger before and his final script was for the memorable Murder on the Orient Express). Theoretically the Apes saga should have died after the second film, but somehow Escape kept the franchise alive. And who would have guessed two more sequels would follow--plus a live action and a cartoon television series, a Tim Burton re-imagining, a fantastic reboot and most recently an excellent reboot sequel. The apes live on, long live the apes!

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 24, 2014 10:35am
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