SUB-GENRES: Thriller / Drama
DIRECTED BY: Don Taylor
WRITTEN BY: Paul Dehn (screenplay); Based on a novel by Pierre Boulle
PEW PEW: This film makes use of suspense instead of action.
CAT FOOD: The Planet of the Apes film series frequently dips its pen into the ink of social commentary and liberally applies it to in both the background and foreground of the pictures. This one tackles racism, human and animal rights, ethics and morality, disposable celebrity, and more.
There was no shortage of science fiction novels being published in the fifties and sixties, and many of them had powerful things to say about the world around their authors. While some of these novels went on to be adapted into film, many of them were too ambitious or bizarre to even attempt a faithful re-imagining. When French author Pierre Boulle (famous for The Bridge On the River Kwai) published La Planète des Singes (Monkey Planet) in 1963, it’s hard to believe anyone could picture a successful film coming out of it, with the limited production tools of the era, at least.
But blow me down, they did it. La Planète des Singes, a novel about a journalist’s experience on a distant planet populated by intelligent apes who wore suits and drove cars, and treated the less advanced humans like animals, went on to spawn eight feature films (with a ninth on the way next year), a live-action television series, a cartoon series, and a clandestine merchandising campaign that predates Star Wars’. So pull up a seat, cause over the next eight days, we’re going to talk about Planet of the Apes, easily one of the most profound and important science fiction film series’ in the genre’s rich history.
It’s amazing that after 1970’s horrendously botched sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, people still wanted more from the series that the 1968 Planet of the Apes spawned. Such was the power of the original concept. I can only assume that people felt cheated enough that they demanded to have dignity restored to the series. I’d say that the almighty dollar probably had a hand in it too, although I can’t imagine why the budgets always remained slashed. Surely, this was a series that should have had its budget steadily increased as the films were released.
So, at the end of the second film, our friend Taylor, having witnessed the deaths of his friends Nova and Brent, triggers the doomsday bomb and nukes the entire planet to smithereens, killing just about every fucking soul on the face of the planet. Kind of a shitty thing to do to Zira and Cornelius, who risked their lives and ruined their careers to help him as best they could. Shit happens, I guess.
So how in the fuck does a sequel happen, you ask? Well, here’s the big stretch, my friends. Get ready, cause this one’s a doozy. It outdoes almost anything an old cliffhanger serial or Adam West Batman episode could possibly throw at you. It even gives the Friday the 13th franchise a run for its money.
So, in the indistinct, but not terribly long, period between Taylor’s crash-landing on ape-dominated Earth circa 3955 and the destruction of the planet, a brilliant ape scientist (and he must have been deity-level brilliant to pull this off) named Dr. Milo fished Taylor’s spaceship out of the sea… despite not having specific coordinates or machinery or anything like that. And despite not having any kind of mechanical devices, or technology, or any previous experience with vehicles (let alone shit that can get you into space!), this Dr. Milo managed to restore the ship, snatch our friends Zira and Cornelius, and launch into space along Taylor’s exact trajectory.
But hey, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do. So, after watching the planet burn to a cinder, Milo, Zira, and Cornelius are hurtled back in time to 1970’s Earth. The story begins a little better for the apes than it did for Taylor when he first entered their world. Knowing what apes did to humans who were different, they are at first reluctant to speak, but we all know that the outspoken and intelligent Zira is a hard one to keep pinned down. Although the humans initially welcome the talking, intelligent apes with open arms, concerns from certain parties arise over a few slips of the tongue that imply the apes came from Earth’s future, and that they will eventually be one of the primary causes of the planet’s destruction.
When the film’s chief antagonist, Dr. Otto Hasslein, finds out that the apes treated humans like animals, he takes it upon himself to hunt down the apes (who now have a baby on the way) and change the fate of the Earth for the better. The film becomes a tragic game of cat and mouse as the apes are painted as monsters and flee for their lives. But, like Taylor once had, the apes have a few allies to help them along the way.
While Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a distinct improvement over the last film, I do have my gripes with it. While it’s cool to see the concept subverted and it does provide a few good laughs by showing the apes attempting to integrate into 1970’s culture (the film references the original novel a bit too, which is kind of neat), the film is ultimately as tragic and grim as the last film. Instead of watching these characters grow, we essentially see them torn apart. And Zira becomes a drunk.
I do, however, praise the fact that this was a heinously intelligent way to do a low budget sequel that doesn’t feel low budget. Whereas the creators of the last film had to recreate a whole society of apes that unfortunately showed it’s cheapness along every seam, with inferior masks, sets, etc., Escape from the Planet of the Apes is based in (then) modern times without the need for masks or complicated sets other than what is needed to keep the three apes looking like the apes from 1968.
The plot is a little far-fetched and requires a tremendous suspension of disbelief. For instance, Cornelius comes from Earth’s future where most apes do not know that man was intelligent and once dominated apes, yet he somehow knows the entire history of the first ape, Aldo, who rose up and spoke, saying “No!” to his human oppressors. Just like the insanely far-fetched ex machina that Taylor’s ship provided to create this sequel, it’s not a huge deal, but it is more than a little improbable. At the very least, they try very hard to maintain continuity by mentioning Col. George Taylor and using Hasslein (a name mentioned by the astronauts in the first film) as a character.
On the other hand, some things that I love are the feel of the picture, and the title of the picture itself. It’s a really nifty trick to have Zira and Cornelius injected into man’s world after Taylor was pulled into theirs. While the dangers of man’s world are far less immediate, I’d say that this itself is the greatest danger, for men aren’t quite as dogmatic and tyrannical, but they put forth a sense and environment of trust, and then turn traitorous in shadows. The title itself has many meanings, which is neat. For example, Escape from the Planet of the Apes can refer to a) Milo, Zira, and Cornelius’ escape from 3955, b) the apes’ struggle to distance themselves from the sins of their own kind, or c) mankind’s (in the form of Otto Hasslein) attempt to murder the apes, change their destiny, and prevent the planet of the apes from ever happening in the future.
As in previous installments, brilliant casting was employed. Roddy McDowall (over his fear of being typecast and prepared to own his ape role for years to come) and Kim Hunter return to play Cornelius and Zira respectively, while the tragically underused (as tragic as his ultimate fate in real life) talent Sal Mineo shines for a few moments as Dr. Milo. Hunter and McDowall are allowed to show more of their characters in the beginning. For fans of the characters, it’s a really cool and borderline magical experience, but as tension mounts, it’s ultimately incredibly tragic.
Their human allies, animal psychologists who work in the zoo, are played by Bradford Dillman and Natalie Trundy, the latter having played a mutant in the last film. She would be cast in an ape role in next film, that would carry over into the fifth. Both actors do a reasonable job portraying the compassionate side of humanity. The great Ricardo Montalbán, however, steals the show as a circus owner who has a love for all animals. He becomes their most valuable ally as he attempts to save they and their baby from harm. Montalbán brought audacious charisma and an utterly captivating fire to every single role he did, his role in Escape from the Planet of the Apes as Armando is no exception.
On the other side of things is Eric Braeden as the sinister Dr. Otto Hasslein. This dude is evil as fuck and Braeden’s performance sells this 100%, with the eerie calm and dapper of a Bond villain. You buy him as a threat from the very beginning, even though, just as the apes do, he chooses to remain mostly silent for a good chunk of the film.
While the film lacks the action of the first two films, Escape from the Planet of the Apes employs nail-biting suspense and sharp, witty humour to make itself interesting. As mentioned above, the film is schizophrenic in its vibe as it begins rather softly with humour and pop culture satire before it segues into a desperate and oppressively tragic fugitive situation.
The social commentary approaches many subjects. While the film satirises the modern human world, with focus on male/female relations and the disposable nature of celebrity, the overt subject seems to be the ethics and morality of changing man’s destiny. The age old question of whether one could or should murder Adolf Hitler as a child to prevent what he became as an adult, for instance.
While Escape from the Planet of the Apes is still a far cry from the first film’s greatness, and it is more than a little hokey from time to time, the movie is a genuinely entertaining, if gut-wrenchingly tragic, watch. It breathes new life into the series and sets the stage for the interesting, if flawed, sequels to come.