Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"Escape from the Planet of the Apes" (1971)

Starring Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter and Bradford Dillman
Written by Paul Dehn
Directed by Don Taylor
Rated G - Violence
Running Time: 98 Minutes

Escaping (somehow) the destruction of the planet in Taylor's spacecraft, three apes, Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo), Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) find themselves transported back through time to the year 1973 where they are found and imprisoned by the United States military in the Los Angeles Zoo.

While in the zoo, Dr. Milo is killed by an enraged gorilla, leaving only Cornelius and Zira to be studied by Drs. Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman) and Stephanie Branton (Natalie Trundy). The four quickly become friends.

The President (William Windom) convenes a committee to discuss the apes and what to do about them. On the commission, one scientist named Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) begins to fear the possibility that the apes have arrived from a future where humanity no longer rules the planet. While the rest of the world welcomes the apes as guests, and they even obtain a certain level of celebrity, Hasslein tries to convince the president of the danger of allowing them to live.

Once it's learned that Zira is with child, things become more dangerous for them. Hasslein discovers that the apes have kept sensitive information about Taylor and the fate of the world from them, and imprisons the apes once more. Realizing he intends to kill the apes and their child, Dixon and Branton help Cornelius and Zira escape. But now the hunt is on, and Cornelius and Zira find themselves in an unfamiliar world, and few friends to trust.

"Beneath the Planet of the Apes" had retconned the original so that instead of returning to Earth after thousands of years of relativistic travel, Taylor had simply gone through some kind of time vortex to arrive in the future. It also added the concept that the astronauts knew that Taylor's ship had "disappeared" and had sent a rescue mission. Now, "Escape from the Planet of the Apes" further retcons in the idea that Cornelius and Zira and the newly-created Dr. Milo were able to raise Taylor's ruined space ship, fix it up and use it to escape the destruction of the Earth.

This, of course, stretches credibility quite a bit.  And that's saying a lot for a movie about a post-apocalyptic future ruled by intelligent apes.

Still, "Escape from the Planet of the Apes" proves itself a better movie than its predecessor (though still not nearly as good as the original) by, if you'll forgive the expression, being more down to earth.  Gone are the absurd fantasy concepts like telepathic mutants or doomsday bombs (though the bomb is referenced, since the end of the world plays a role in the story).  Instead, "Escape" relies on a simple story of fear and racism.

Central to the story is Hasslein's fears that humanity's place at the top of the food chain will not be assured in the future. Even the president seems resigned to allow history to unfold as it will, wondering whether it was their place to try and interfere with destiny, even knowing what's coming. But Hasslein stubbornly refuses, and manages to incite fear and hysteria that will culminate in a government order to terminate Zira's pregnancy.

If "Beneath" was an ill-advised rehash, "Escape" turns out to be a clever reversal of the original film.  Here it's the apes who are out of place, disliked and mistrusted by those around them. Even in the more comedic moments of the film, when Zira and Cornelius are treated as celebrities, there's an undercurrent of them being simple curiosities, no more than sideshow freaks for the world to gawk at. In one amusing scene, a reporter for a pet magazine attempts to interview Zira, who asks, "Do you think of us as pets?" and the reporter says, "Well of course."  Another fine moment occurs during their presidential enquiry, when Zira announces that she and Cornelius are wedded, only to cause an outburst from a priest.

"Escape," despite its title, is actually a rather talky film. The only action is a brief chase sequence at the finale, otherwise it's very much a drama about these two characters trying to prove they're not just animals to be studied and experimented on. It features none of the shocking violence of the original, nor the overlong battle sequences of the second. Still, it moves along at a steady pace, and gets intriguingly darker as it goes along. The ending almost seems out of place considering how bright and even funny the first half of the film is, but ultimately it's appropriately tragic.

Of note should be a supporting role played by the great Ricardo Montalban as Armando, a circus owner who agrees to take in Cornelius and Zira as a favor to Dixon and Branton. He brings real energy to his role as an animal lover, and is another bright spot in a series that continues to portray humanity in a less than flattering light.

Though the film has to do some strange continuity gymnastics to justify its existence, the heart of the drama ends up compelling thanks to a strong script and some solid performances.