(Warning: Potential Spoilers, especially if you’re good at reading between the lines of my attempts to be all mysterious-like)
Continuing with our look at the original Planet of the Apes films, we come to 1971’s Escape from The Planet of the Apes.
Escape From The Planet of the Apes starts out with a huge problem — how do you make a sequel to a film that literally ended with the entire planet being destroyed? Escape handles this problem by reversing the plotline of the original film. Instead of a group of humans going into the future and landing on a planet dominated by apes, this film features three apes going into the past and landing on a planet dominated by the past. It’s a premise that the film handles with a surprising amount of cleverness and the end result is probably the best of the various Planet of the Apes sequel. Certainly, it is the only one that can stand alone as a film separate from the rest of the series.
Using Taylor’s old space capsule, Zira (Kim Hunter), Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), and Milo (Sal Mineo, who you know is doomed because he’s the only one of the three who hasn’t appeared in either of the two previous films) escape Earth shortly before Charlton Heston blows the planet up at the end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Slipping through the same vortex as Heston did in the first film, they end up crash landing on Earth in the year 1974.
At first, Cornelius and the outspoken Zira become media celebrities. They do interviews with the press, appear on the covers of magazines, and are generally celebrated like simian Kardashians. However, one scientist — played by a very handsome Eric Braeden (seriously, he has gorgeous hair in this film) — isn’t as charmed by Zira and Cornelius. Instead, he views them as threats to the future of the human race, especially after he discovers that Zira is pregnant.
The character that Braeden plays, by the way, is named Dr. Otto Hasslien and attentive viewers will recognize the name from a throw-away reference made by Taylor (Charlton Heston) in the original Planet of the Apes. One of the more interesting subtexts in this film is that, much as chimpanzees Zira and Cornelius are this film’s equivalent to the human Taylor, Braeden’s Hasslien is this film’s version of Dr. Zaius. Much as Maurice Evans did for Dr. Zaius, Braeden brings a certain ambiguity to his villianous character. Though Braeden’s actions are ultimately hateful, it’s also made clear that they’re more motivated by fear than by evil. Indeed, when Braeden first appears in this film, he’s almost likable. It’s only at the film’s conclusion that we become fully aware of the irony that the human, “civilized” Dr. Hasslien ultimately shows less mercy and empathy to Zira and Cornelius than the ape Dr. Zaius showed to Taylor. The moral ambiguity of Braeden’s performance makes this a far more resonant film than most mainstream critics are willing to admit.
As for, Zira and Cornelius, the once-fawing public eventually turns against them as it becomes apparent that for the two of them to exist, humanity has to be wiped out. Zira and Cornelius find themselves hunted fugitives, fleeing for their lives while the whole planet — with the exception of a zoo keeper played by Ricardo Montalban and another scientist (played by Bradford Dillman — what a great name for an actor) — seems to be determined to destroy them.
Escape From The Planet of the Apes starts out as a likable, rather breezy social satire (much like Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet, the novel that Planet of the Apes was loosely adapted from) and that makes it even more surprising when, about halfway through, the movie shifts gears and becomes a rather dark and bleak action film. It all ends, like many films from the early 70s, in a brutal act of violence that carries a surprising punch to it. It’s after the end of the film that we truly become aware just how involved we had become with Zira and Cornelius. A lot of that has to do with the strong performances of McDowall and Hunter who both created characters that came across as real and worthy, regardless of how many layers of makeup they were acting under. Their chemistry as a couple makes this underrated film one of the surprising gems of the early 70s.