Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Zaki's Retro Review: Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971)

For the Planet of the Apes series, the end of the world turned out to be just the beginning. A whole new beginning, really.

Tasked by producer Arthur Jacobs with somehow furthering the franchise even in the wake of the last go-round's post-apocalyptic apocalypse, screenwriter Paul Dehn (newly-anointed overseer of all-things Apes) managed to fashion a time-tripping, paradox-inducing loophole for himself almost entirely from a whole cloth. This in turn provided him with enough thread to spin three more yarns and in the process shift the entire Apes paradigm by turning its own evolution upside down.

We begin in "present day" 1973, where Taylor's spacecraft from movie one turns up off the California coast. When the vessel is brought to shore, the shocked brass learns that its passengers are none other than our friends Zira and Cornelius (with Kim Hunter reunited with the returned Roddy McDowall), along with fellow chimp scientist Milo (Sal Mineo), who somehow managed to retrieve and repair the downed ship and take off just before the shockwave from Earth's destruction tossed them back to our time. After an unfortunate accident leaves poor Milo on the slab, the two time-lost chimps make their case in front of a presidential commission and the public, and are soon feted as celebrities and given a luxurious hotel suite -- the toast of the town in the 20th century.

But there's trouble a-brewing in the form of presidential science advisor Dr. Otto Hasslein (played by Eric Braeden, and name-checked in both of the prior movies for formulating the hypothesis that leads to time travel), concerned with the potential consequences of allowing the two ape-onauts to propagate (Zira's pregnant, FYI). The chimps soon become wanted fugitives, but two sympathetic animal psychologists (Bradford Dillman, Natalie Trundy) are able to bring them to circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban) to facilitate the birth of the child (named in honor of poor, dead Milo).

This being an Apes movie and all, things pretty quickly take a turn for the worse. Tracking the apes to the ruins of an abandoned oil tanker, Hasslein (against the explicit orders of President William Windom) guns down Zira and the baby before himself being shot and killed by Cornelius, who is then brought down in a hail of bullets from the gathered military. The film's penultimate sequence has the mortally wounded Zira using her final breaths to crawl to her mate and collapse on his body. It's a poetic, tragic end for these characters -- who escaped the death of their world only to find it for themselves two thousand years in the past.

Now, when discussing Planet of the Apes, it's helpful to think in two tiers: the first movie, and everything else. And this second sequel is the best of the "everything else." While it's understandably no patch on the original, it still cleverly continues the concept in a way that enriches, rather than detracts from, its storied forebear. For Beneath, Dehn was clearly laboring within the story premise that had been concocted by associate producer Mort Abrahams, and at times those creative handcuffs were a little bit too apparent. But with Escape, Dehn was free to follow his muse, and he crafted a story that retains its cynical, hard-edged hallmarks while also packing in a considerable amount of pathos.

Though saddled with a significantly lower budget, the production (competently helmed by TV vet Don Taylor) largely works by juxtaposing the property's central conceit in a way that marks the fundamental turning point in the series where our loyalties switch from human to simian. But while we have a pre-existing investment in Zira and Cornelius and their continued survival, thanks to the richness of Dehn's words and Braeden's performance, we also can't entirely dismiss Hasslein (just as we couldn't entirely dismiss his thematic forebear, Dr. Zaius). As he says at one point, "If I urge the destruction of these two apes, am I defying God's will or obeying it? Am I His enemy or His instrument?"

It's in these discussions of man and God and destiny and free will that Dehn is most in his element, and consequently where Escape most excels. Indeed, in exchanges like the one above, we get a sense of how the series' religious overtones -- layered throughout the first two films' Sacred Scrolls and Lawgivers -- become significantly more explicit, such as when the president tells Hasslein in response to the scientist's desire to see the apes killed: "Herod tried that, and Christ survived." The irony, of course, is that it's Hasslein himself who precipitates man's downfall through his actions, beginning a process of death-following-death that will culminate in a nuclear explosion twenty centuries hence.

Of course, while the end of Cornelius and Zira was as tragic as it was inevitable, it hardly meant the end for a franchise that had managed to soldier on even after killing off its previous leading man and the planet he landed on. Having had to creatively work themselves out of a corner twice already, Dehn and Jacobs weren't about to make the same mistake again, leaving themselves a narrative "out" in the form of a brief tag before the credits that makes crystal clear that Zira's baby has survived. And with that, Hasslein's nightmare of the dark, distant future was about to come to pass -- though movie audiences would only have to wait one year to see it.

To Be Continued...

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