Escape From The Planet Of The Apes

US (1971) Dir. Don Taylor

So having ended your last film on a pretty conclusive note by blowing up the entire planet and killed off all the characters, the last thing you would expect is to be told a sequel has been commissioned! For producer Arthur P. Jacobs this was the nightmare scenario he found himself, asking “where exactly do we go from here?” Thankfully screenwriter Paul Dehn had the answer – back in time of course!

Escape From The Planet Of The Apes opens with the spacecraft Taylor manned in the first film landing off the Pacific coast in the US in the year 1973. Out pops three astronauts who reveal themselves to be the last surviving of the apes – Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), Zira (Kim Hunter), and Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo). They had repaired the spacecraft and managed to escape literally moments before the future Earth’s destruction, the shock wave from the explosion sending them through a time warp.

They are taken to Los Angeles Zoo under the observation of scientists Stephanie Branton (Natalie Trundy) and Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman). Milo is killed by a gorilla but Zira and Cornelius are presented before an official commission, surprising everyone when they talk. They soon become media darlings but the details of their story and the chilling future of the earth, where apes were superior to man, breeds paranoia in the President’s science advisor Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) who uses his position to perpetuate this fear. Upon learning that Zira is pregnant and fearing this is the start of an ape revolution, Hasslein seeks to expose and exterminate the apes.

There is probably a temptation to roll one’s eyes at the fact this second sequel exists especially after how the second one ends, and with the time travel angle it may seem like an easy get out. However Paul Dehn’s script is actually an intelligent and skilful slice of misdirection while providing a fertile base for the future sequels as well as expository connection to the first two films.

With original novelist Pierre Boulle giving his approval, Dehn’s story begins as a light hearted satire of the first film with the roles of ape and man reversed. Having once been the ones doing the assessing and experimenting on alien subjects Zira and Cornelius find themselves being the ones under the microscope, having to justify their bizarre views and knowledge in the same way Taylor did to them. The difference is that the apes are more understanding of their situation and take in all in good humour, displaying a rare wit which endears them to all around them.

Except, that is, Hasslein and his equally suspicious colleagues within the President’s official inner circle. True to the same form with which Dr. Zaius and the other senior apes viewed Taylor’s words askance, Hasslein refuses to believe the primate visitors are as benevolent as they make out and utilised an number of dirty tricks to get Zira to confess – actually he plies her with drink – and twist her words into something for more incriminating.

The obvious similarities between the two stories won’t be lost on anyone nor are they intended to be subtle, which is why they are treated in a humorous light, but the second half of the film is a much darker affair. Having been set up and labelled a threat to national security by Hasslein, Zira and Cornelius go on the run with the help of Dixon and Stephanie who hide them out with circus owner Señor Armando (Ricardo Montalbán). There Zira gives birth to a boy named Milo after their fallen colleague but Hasslein is hot on the trail.

I doubt there has ever been such an elliptical story that successfully runs on the same single line yet carves a number of individual courses for each plot. I’m sure we can all nitpick about the various paradoxes which might (and presumably do) occur but Dehn seems to have got himself out a pickle after the end of Beneath, serendipitously raising the bar for sci-fi/time travel possibilities in the process.

By setting it in (then) modern day America, the budget wasn’t so stretched and the air of believability was somehow more palpable as a result. Dehn’s script also held a mirror up to modern society and how despite our supposed progress as civilised beings, basic prejudices still exist, the end result being unjustified fear. The inevitable grim ending reinforces to us how man is the true monster of the world and as we see, is the architect of his own downfall – this time, as we now know, literally.

With a greater role to play than in the last two films both Kim Hunter and a returning Roddy McDowell are given carte blanche to make the characters of Zira and Cornelius as endearing and convincing as possible. Hunter in particular is an absolute dream and really should have been given an Oscar nod for her turn here. Both make their simian alter egos appear more human than the humans – utterly sympathetic, emotional and rational. They may be wearing thick masks but they convey everything that lies behind them with their eyes and body language with greater effect that the modern CGI equivalent.

Criticism levied towards Escape From Planets Of The Apes for not following the sci-fi pattern of its predecessors (successors?) is both asinine and unfair. This entry is a much stronger film than Beneath and cleverly posits itself in a unique position in the chronology of the saga. This is a testament to the writing and creativity of Paul Dehn and the performances of Hunter and McDowell.

If the end of Beneath left us wondering where things would go next, the poignant end of Escape leaves us both curious and excited for what is to come.