Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) / Sci Fi-Adventure
MPAA Rated: Rated G. Would be PG-13 today for violence and subject matter.
Running Time: 98 min.
Cast: Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall, Bradford Dillman, Eric Braeden, Natalie Trundy, Ricardo Montalban, William Windom, Sal Mineo. M/ Emmet Walsh
Small role: Army Archerd
Director: Don Taylor
Screenplay: Paul Dehn
Review published July 23, 2014
The third in the original five-film Planet of the Apes story arc, Escape from the Planet of the Apes sidesteps the end of the world as it occurred in the last entry, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, by having three of the chimpanzees -- Zira (Hunter, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), Cornelius (McDowall, Circle of Iron) and Milo (Mineo, Rebel without a Cause) -- travel back in time using Taylor's spaceship to the early 1970s Earth. Humans greet them as visitors from outer space, only to be shocked to discover they are talking apes who claim to be from Earth's future. Initially embracing them, statements the apes make raise red flags about whether they should be allowed to live, should their descriptions of a humankind in bondage actually come about.
Bringing out more comedy than had been in evidence in the prior two entries, Escape finally fully embraces the campy qualities that had been the window dressing of its more serious predecessors, only showing a straight face as it nears its finale. In a bit of a role reversal, it feels like a negative image of the plot of the original film, as now it is the apes' turn to find themselves surrounded in the dangerous world of humans, who are the captors of the simian lot, and their "fish out of water" antics provides a good deal of the punch lines. Unlike the human astronauts in the future, who are immediately enslaved before one of them earns the apes' trust and is freed, in this one, the ape-stronauts (as they are called by the media) are initially heralded and accepted, only to find themselves more and more trapped and deemed a menace as the story rolls on.
While the presence of Charlton Heston is missed, it's good to see Roddy McDowall, who sat out the second installment (save for a voiceover at the beginning), along with the lively presence of Kim Hunter, reprising their roles as pacifist scientists, Kira and Cornelius. Both actors imbue their characters with plenty of charisma and decent comic timing, such as in scenes in which Kira imbibes "grape juice plus" (aka wine), and can't seem to handle her buzz, or when they don human garb for the first time in downtown Los Angeles. Kira also gets to deliver a fiery speech to a group of women that feels right out a women's lib playbook of the early 1970s era, though, while an amusing scene, it feels wildly out of place for the character who had never shown an inkling of resistance to the patriarchal society of apes that takes place in the future (i.e., her past).
It's in this film that we're introduced to that ultimate time travel conundrum of whether we can change our fate, and whether the act of travel itself has already altered the course of the future history, or if it becomes the direct cause of it. Certainly, the presence of two talking chimpanzees who are 'mates' raises the possibility that they could have a child chimp that's as smart as they are. Will that be the start of the ape rise? And if so, how did it happen the first time through the time loop when Zira and Cornelius's arrival was the catalyst? Was it just Earth's destiny -- or God's plan, as is talked about as a main theme within the dialogue?
Although it pales by comparison to the landmark 1968 original, Escape is a refreshing change of pace for the first half, finally running out of creative steam for its second, where it becomes a prolonged, boring, and very predictable chase flick. The final shot (and final line) of the film is one you can see coming long before it occurs, and the way it is edited makes it feel cheap and hurried. This last half of the film feels like it is padded for time (along with its lengthy title sequence, it is barely 90 minutes of story), to the point where it is only when the chase finally ends that it begins to get interesting. The shoot-out in the climax does take some unexpected turns, so I will give the filmmakers credit for having the guts to go where it goes, but the deadly seriousness of it does jar with the light and comic tone of nearly every scene preceding it.
While it is a welcome direction for the franchise, and collects quite a few funny or clever scenes, the fact that screenwriter Dehn (Goldfinger, Murder on the Orient Express) has delivered only half of a decent movie makes it fall just short of a recommendation. Certainly, there's enough here for Apes fans to find worthy of their continued attention, but those looking for a return to the intelligence of the 1968 magnum opus will likely find these sequels continue to deliver diminishing returns.
-- Followed by Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.
©2014 Vince Leo