Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? As the third movie in a series where I didn’t like the first one much, I did not have high expectations.
What did I get? In Escape from the Planet of the Apes a trio of chimpanzees travels back in time to 1971. As I mentioned in my review of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, I’m not fond of the original movie, but it was still a surprise to me that I like the third one best of all so far. The contemporary setting freed up the filmmakers, I think, to make a conventionally engaging movie with more varied and interesting situations, a few compelling philosophical points to ponder, and even unexpected emotional resonance. I’m developing a healthy measure of respect for Paul Dehn, writer of the second and third movies.
In Escape, we get a reversal of the first movie, in that instead of a talking, civilized human being treated as a bizarre anomaly by a society of apes, a talking, civilized chimpanzee is treated as a bizarre anomaly by a society of human beings. It’s roughly equivalent the move Swift made when he switched from Liliput, where Gulliver is enormous, to Brobdingnag, where Gulliver is tiny. As before, the host society in question has inordinate difficulty making an adjustment that in real life would probably be fairly quick, that a creature who can converse intelligently must be treated as an intelligent creature, but in fairness, the movie does manage to move past stage that before too long.
In Escape, the chimpanzees — mainly Zira and Cornelius; their companion Milo is killed early on — have, by dint of their origins in the year 2174 or so, foreknowledge of humanity’s self-destruction by nuclear warfare, as revealed in Planet of the Apes, and the planet’s eventual destruction by a single über-nuclear warhead, as revealed in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. The problem for the unnamed U.S. president, then, is a variation of the Hitler conundrum: if pregnant Zira can avert a catastrophic future, is it moral to do so? That problem is ultimately nullified by the circular possibility entertained by the fact that the movie (especially in its splendid final shot) that it’s the apes of Zira’s generation who spawned the society of intelligent primates that constitutes the franchise’s raison d’etre.
That fun impossibility is easy to dismiss, sure, but the fate of poor Zira strikes an emotional — is it permissible to say “human” here? — chord that the other two movies never really approach. It’s fun to see the apes feted in 1971 Los Angeles, as they encounter mod fashions and champagne for the first time. The movie usefully consists of several different sequences which are tonally very different, which is a sign that the filmmakers knew enough to start one place, and then go there, and there, and there — the first two movies are far more constrained by the barren terrain of postapocalyptic New Jersey (which weirdly has a lot of deserts in it).
IMDB score: 6.1 (original movie: 8.0)
My score: 6
What here smacks of 1971? The gee-whiz metaphysics, perhaps.
Director: Don Taylor
Writer: Paul Dehn
Starring: Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Bradford Dillman, Natalie Trundy, Eric Braeden, Sal Mineo, Ricardo Montalbán, John Randolph, M. Emmet Walsh
IMDB synopsis: Following the events in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”, Cornelius and Zira flee back through time to 20th Century Los Angeles, where they face fear and persecution similar to what Taylor and Brent suffered in the future, and discover the origins of the stream of events that will shape their world.