Sunday, July 09, 2017

Summer School: 'Escape From the Planet of the Apes' (1971)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

After the literal scorched-Earth ending of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, it's hard to believe that the series could continue (the ending was reportedly star Charlton Heston's way of getting out of having to make more sequels), but Hollywood always finds a way when there's money involved. So we get a major retcon in order to make Escape From the Planet of the Apes happen, with married ape scientists Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall, returning after skipping the last movie) avoiding the destruction of the future Earth by escaping on Taylor's refurbished spaceship before the bomb goes off. This also requires the invention of a previously unmentioned genius-level ape scientist named Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo), who apparently figured out how to fix and fly a spaceship despite the apes being baffled by the existence of a paper airplane in the first movie.

Whatever. It's all just a bunch of hand-waving to get Zira and Cornelius to travel through a rift back in time to Earth's present, where they are the ones who are out of place, in an inversion of the original movie's premise. But rather than the stark, otherworldly sci-fi of the first movie, Escape goes for silly fish-out-of-water comedy in its first half, as Zira and Cornelius become celebrities and get makeovers and are hounded by the press (Milo is quickly killed off after serving his plot purpose). There's some cute comedy along the way, but most of it is pretty cheesy, and it clashes with the more serious tone that the movie takes in its second half, as presidential science adviser Dr. Hasslein (Eric Braeden) becomes increasingly convinced that Zira and Cornelius represent an imminent threat to the human race and must be neutralized.

There's a sort of Terminator-style time paradox storyline here, as Hasslein learns that apes will eventually overtake humans (Cornelius seems to have a much better understanding of his culture's history than anyone did in the first movie) and worries that by appearing in the past, Zira and Cornelius will be the direct cause of the inevitable rise of the planet of the apes (via the unborn son that Zira is revealed to be carrying). On the other hand, it's clear that the rise of the apes will come thousands of years in the future, so Hasslein's urgency is a bit misplaced, even though Braeden plays him as a genuine concerned scientist, rather than an outright villain. Still, there are some intriguing sci-fi ideas brought up in the latter part of the movie, although they're overshadowed by silly chase antics and an even sillier subplot involving a circus led by a hammy Ricardo Montalban.

Hunter and McDowall bring some warm emotion to their characters and get a welcome spotlight after being sidelined and ignored in Beneath, but there isn't the same fire as there was to Heston's Taylor. The shift of setting to present-day Earth loses a lot of what was unique about the previous movies, the chance to explore the complexities of the ape society. There's no opportunity for allegory when the movie is dealing with the current real world. It does save money on makeup effects, at least, which was a major reason for the shift, and as with Beneath, the filmmakers (screenwriter Paul Dehn and director Don Taylor) make the most of the limitations, taking the story in a striking but frustrating new direction. Also like Beneath, Escape ends on a serious down note (albeit not quite as bleak), although it does have an epilogue that sets up potential future installments, a thread that would also eventually be picked up by the reboot/prequel movies. It's another messy but admirable effort to expand the world of the original movie.

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