Escape from the Planet of the Apes Movie Review: A Cinematic Course Correction for the Franchise

"Where we come from, apes talk. Humans are dumb." - Cornelius
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"How do you carry on when you've blown up the world?" host Roddy McDowall asks in Behind the Planet of the Apes, a documentary produced for the AMC cable channel in 1998.

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That was the dilemma facing Apes producer Arthur P. Jacobs and writer Paul Dehn when Twentieth Century Fox requested a third film in the series, following the box office success of Beneath the Planet of the Apes in the summer of 1970.

As you may recall, Beneath ends (SPOILER ALERT) with the destruction of Earth. As you may also recall (SPOILER ALERT) it's an awful movie. This left the filmmakers with two challenges: 1) how to tell a story in a narrative continuum that no longer exists and 2) how not to make another awful movie.

Lucky for them (and us) they devised the perfect solution: Escape From the Planet of the Apes.

Escape opens on a wide shot of the recognizably rocky coastline (actually Zuma Beach, near Malibu) that served as the setting for the climax of the first film and the prologue of second. The opening credits begin, accompanied only by the distant roar of the surf: "Twentieth Century Fox presents...an Arthur P. Jacobs Production." Suddenly, a helicopter swoops into frame from behind the jagged cliffs, shattering the timeless tableau with the mechanical din of a modern machine.

Without a word of dialogue, the audience has learned a key piece of exposition: we are no longer in the low-tech future of the first two films. We've gone back in time, perhaps to our own present.

A convoy of military vehicles trundles toward the beach as the copter circles a downed spacecraft bobbing in the sea. It's the familiar ANSA command module - either the one that that brought Taylor (Charlton Heston) to the Planet of the Apes, or that transported Brent (James Franciscus) on his failed rescue mission in the first sequel.  

As the navy divers help three spacesuit-clad astronauts climb out of the ship, a welcoming party of generals assembles on the beach. They salute, and the commanding officer addresses what he believes to be the returning heroes:

"Welcome, gentlemen... to the United Sta..."

The astronauts remove their helmets, revealing that they are not, in fact, gentlemen. They are apes. Cue Jerry Goldsmith's futuristically funky score and the opening title: Escape From the Planet of the Apes.

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No matter how many times I watch this, it still makes the vestigial hair on my arms stand on end. If the first four minutes of Escape isn't the most creatively efficient opening sequence in the history of science fiction film, I don't know what is.

Before the opening credits have even begun, director Don Taylor demonstrates that he understands exactly what we want from a movie about talking apes. Everything that was wrong with Beneath - the heavy-handed moralizing, the humorless plot, the lack of creative risk-taking - is fixed in the first four minutes. The cold open of Escape From the Planet of the Apes is nothing less than a cinematic course correction.

And while the rest of the movie never quite lives up to the sublime perfection of the prologue, Escape is, without question, the best of the four sequels.   

Providing a narrative inverse to the first film, Escape's trio of visitors from the stars are Zira (Kim Hunter), her husband Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), and a new furry face:  Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo), a scientist who exists primarily to explain the plot to his fellow cast members, and the audience.

Apparently, before Chuck Heston blew up the world because he didn't want to make any more Apes movies, Dr. Milo and Cornelius fished his ship out of Lake Forbidden Zone, repaired it, and launched it into space just in time to avoid Armageddon. That's a pretty good trick for two guys who usually travel via horse and buggy.

Milo surmises that he and his chimpanzee companions have passed through a "backward disturbance in time" (also known as a "Hasslein Curve," but more on that later) sending them on the return trip from Taylor's original journey. Other clues that they have traveled back to Earth's lesser-evolved Me Generation include the wide neckties, long sideburns and inexplicable popularity of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour - as foretold by the Lawgiver in the Sacred Scrolls.

Sadly, Dr. Milo's otherwise impeccable timing runs out when he is strangled by a primitive gorilla at the Los Angeles Zoo the morning after he arrives. This was apparently a welcome relief for Sal Mineo, who reportedly hated the elaborate makeup and was more than happy to shuffle off his monkey coil sixteen minutes into the picture.

Following Milo's death, Zira and Cornelius are placed in the care of Dr. Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman, better known as a TV actor) and Dr. Stephanie "Stevie" Branton (better known as producer Arthur P. Jacobs's wife). Like Taylor was on their home planet, Zira and Cornelius are caged, interrogated and subject to a political inquisition, during which they offer selectively truthful answers. Unlike Taylor, they manage to keep their clothes on throughout the entire process. Also unlike Taylor, they charm their captors into releasing them and soon become media darlings.

But all is not well for America's Next Top Simian Celebrities.

Presidential Science Advisor Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) discovers from whence Zira and Cornelius have come, and exactly what's in store for us two millennia from now. Hasslein theorizes that our fate is not fixed; it can be altered if he eliminates Cornelius and Zira - and the baby they have conceived. And just when all is looking hopeless for our heroes, muy guapo circus owner Senor Armando (Ricardo Montalban) shows up to throw a monkey wrench - sorry, a chimpanzee wrench -  into Hasslein's plans.

And this is where Escape From the Planet of the Apes gets morally complex. Cornelius and Zira clearly are the heroes of this film, which makes Hasslein, as their principal antagonist, the villain. Like Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) in the first two movies, Hasslein fears and distrusts the interlopers because he perceives their existence to be a threat to his race. But unlike Zaius, Hasslein's race is our race. As far as I know, everyone watching this movie is human, with the possible exception of audiences in certain sections of New Jersey.

By plotting to expose Cornelius and Zira, and to forcibly abort their baby, Hasslein is really trying to save us. And yet, we can't help but root for him to fail, because of our affection for characters we have come to love over the course of three films.

And when Hasslein does fail, he ends up inadvertently accelerating the reality he sought to prevent. What would have happened over the course of centuries will now happen in decades. In effect, he has created a time dilation to the devolution of the human race or, if you prefer, a Hasslein Curve to the Planet of the Apes.

This is the paradox Arthur Jacobs and Paul Dehn created when they chose to make their last three Apes sequels chronological prequels. Because we all know how this story ends: we lose. That means that somewhere along the way, the apes have to start winning, and we may be tempted to root against ourselves.  

What makes this ambiguity even more powerful is Eric Braeden's understated, sympathetic performance as Hasslein. He's no moustache-twirling, evil-for-the-sake-of-evil psychopath. He's a dedicated man of science seeking to save mankind from an imminent threat. And he's probably even a Democrat, because we all know that no Republican president would ever have a scientist in his cabinet - certainly not one who believed in evolution. (EDITOR'S NOTE: Please send any letters of complaint about that last sentence to willmckinley@mac.com.)

Ironically, with its "chimp-out-of-water" scenes of Cornelius shopping at a fancy Los Angeles haberdashery and Zira imploring Women's Libbers to make their husbands help with the housework, Escape has the lightest tone of the five original films. It also has the saddest ending. The ability to balance these tonal shifts is one of the many reasons Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall are so key to the success of this movie, and the series overall.

In her third and final turn as Zira, Hunter is given center stage, and deftly navigates a complex range from emotions from indignation to empowerment to selflessness. When she winks at McDowall, wiggles her nose or clasps her hands (paws?) to her heart, you truly believe these two characters are in love. And McDowall is particularly strong in scenes where Cornelius is called upon to step beyond his instinctual pacifism to protect his wife and child. It's no coincidence that the worst film in the franchise is the only one McDowall is not in.

Escape From the Planet of the Apes is not perfect, by any means. With less than half the budget of the first film, it often feels claustrophobic, and stage-bound, more like a really good episode of a TV show than a feature film. Not surprisingly, director Don Taylor did most of his work on television, and much of the supporting cast feels TV-grade.

But what raises Escape above the level of a typical sci-fi sequel is the quality of the principal cast. What Taylor got from Hunter, McDowall, Braeden and even Montalban in a small but significant role is emotionally resonant, exciting and fun to watch. And you might even get choked up at the end, just like I did every time I watched it after school on The 4:30 Movie.

 Laughter, tears and talking apes, what more could you want from a movie?

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