Escape from the Planet of the Apes
d. Don Taylor / 1971 / USA / 98 mins
With the world annihilated along with every character the series had shown so far, it was only inevitable that producer Arthur P. Jacobs and writer Paul Dehn would have to put all reason aside when pulling together a third Planet of the Apes movie. Amazingly, this part of the series would become the franchise’s high point, second only to the original (by a significantly large margin, it has to be said).
We’re asked to suspend our disbelief and accept that the two much loved characters from both previous movies, Zira (once again played by Kim Hunter), Cornelius (the part being reprised by the original’s Roddy McDowall) and newcomer Milo (Sal Mineo) are able to retrieve the utterly ravaged ship that crashed in the first film and are able to use it to escape back in time to 1973.
In credit to Dehn, the story is an interesting twist on the original that manages to avoid adding contrivances such as mutants to keep things fresh and interesting. Exploring how events from Planet of the Apes would have unfolded if an intelligent ape were to land in a world populated by humans, the message that whilst men may appear more civilised, are also capable of far more calculated hypocrisies at least builds upon and adds a little to the themes of the original.
The budget had been slashed again by this point, and whilst the films were still proving successful, it was obvious that the priority was to quickly and cheaply draw as much profit from the series as possible before it lost momentum. The film looks and sounds more like a televised special than a theatrical release, but is done to a decent enough standard that it does its job and acts as an improvement to the preceding film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
It’s difficult to recommend the film to anyone who doesn’t have a vested interest in the franchise, as with the rest of the sequels it has little to offer unless your curiosities about its world and characters are enough to sustain what is essentially a lack-lustre sci-fi tie-in. Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter are without a doubt the main reason for its limited success. The entertainment that comes from watching Zira and Cornelius interact with human society is one of the most memorable parts of the series and the ending manages to attain poignancy for those who have stuck through the film’s foibles. The same cannot be said for the human characters, Dixon (Bradford Dillman) and Branton (Natalie Trundy’s second appearance in the Apes films) act as Zira and Cornelius’ human counterparts but are unlikely to have too much of an impact on an audience’s enjoyment, whilst Eric Braeden goes through the motions as the pseudo-villainous Dr. Otto Hasslein. One performance worthy of acknowledgement is that of Ricrado Montalba (of Star Trek’s Kahn fame) who gives a brief but spirited appearance as the circus owner, Armando.
Even with the film’s apparent love of pacifism, characters and events feel manipulated into violent scenarios simply to maintain its pace. Cornelius accidentally kills a human when angered with what is no more than a shove, Zira discards distinctive personal artefacts that allow the men who are trying to kill her to easily track her and a caged gorilla kills another character in an unexplained rage. Dehn relies on contrivances for plot points rather than intelligently manoeuvring characters into what amount to be their obvious destinies. Luckily the chemistry between McDowall and Hunter make up for the discrepancies, the writing at its best when the two of them interact. Dehn’s most surprising success is bringing a level of wit so far unseen in the franchise. Whereas Charlton Heston’s revelation to the apes that he can talk is nothing but dramatic, when the committee establishing the intelligence of the apes first sarcastically ask Cornelius whether he can talk he replies with a smile, indicating Zira, “only when she lets me”.
Although no where near as superior as the original, Escape from the Planet of the Apes is possibly the most personal and touching of the movies despite many shortcomings, due almost wholly to its focus on the two most empathetic and (ironically) human of its characters.