[With Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opening on Friday, July 11th, I’m taking a look back at the Planet of the Apes movie franchise. These reviews contain spoilers.]
After Beneath the Planet of the Apes destroyed the planet, the only way to continue the franchise was to leave not only time and space, but also tone. Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a dramatically different film in all the best ways. It’s intentionally comic, heartwarming, and empathetic while still remaining true to the thoughtfulness and ultimately darkness of the previous two movies. The third entry in the franchise is a mirror, an inverse, and a necessary evolution that brought the apes to a fresh start but also a doomed conclusion.
A spaceship has crashed into the Pacific Ocean, and when the military goes to open it, they discover three astronauts inside. But the soldiers are shocked when the astronauts remove their helmets and reveal not humans but apes. Specifically, it’s Zira (Kim Hunter), Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), and new character Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo). But instead of receiving the harsh treatment visited upon Taylor, whose ship they used to escape the Earth before it was destroyed by the doomsday device in Beneath, the apes are escorted to a cage at the zoo. It’s not glamorous, but it’s an understandable caution, especially since the apes initially refuse to talk to the humans.
From the moment Escape from the Planet of the Apes begins, we can tell we’re in for a distinct experience. In addition from the obvious change to the present-day (in this case, 1973), the palette is brighter, Jerry Goldsmith‘s score is peppier, and then we get a charming reveal that the apes are wearing astronaut uniforms. We’re also drawn into new mysteries. How did they repair Taylor’s damaged ship? How were they transported to the past? Why aren’t they talking to the humans?
Rather than let these questions hang over the entire film, they’re quickly answered by Dr. Milo, who repaired the ship and understands human history. The film then twists us again when a gorilla kills Milo, and director Don Taylor once again shows us we’re in for a topsy-turvy experience. The ape creed, “Ape Shall Not Kill Ape” has been broken, and at that moment, the movie cuts across animals in the zoo freaking out. Even though the gorilla isn’t from the future, the natural order has been disrupted, and while Zira and Cornelius are intelligent, they’re not safe.
Thankfully, with the exception of Dr. Milo’s unfortunate death, the movie quickly recovers and brings us into a world that’s sunny and upbeat by any standard, not just when compared to the dour Apes movies thus far. Zira and Cornelius are treated well by Doctors Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman) and Stephanie Branton (Natalie Trundy), and everyone is pretty much playing fair. Instead of trying to cover-up the apes or jump straight to dissecting them, they’re purposely revealed to the public, and then the President (William Windom) convenes a hearing. Everyone is being above-board and open-minded about the apes with the exception of the President’s science advisor, Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden), who’s understandably wary of these creatures from the future.
For the most part and to the film’s benefit, Hasslein isn’t presented as a straight villain. His concerns are legitimate. He can tell that although Zira and Cornelius have no problem winning over the panel and the observers, the apes are hiding something. He doesn’t know how humans were treated in the future or what happened to Taylor, but he’s sure of at least one thing: apes somehow became the dominant species on the planet, and that’s not good for mankind.
Whereas the first two films were more inclined to touch on current events, Escape from the Planet of the Apes takes a more philosophical approach. When Zira gets drunk on wine (or “Grape Juice Plus” as she calls it and what we should all call wine from here on out), she reveals the unflattering aspects of the future to Hasslein. This leads to a mature, thoughtful conversation in the Oval Office between the President and Hasslein over whether or not to terminate Zira’s pregnancy or kill the baby after it’s born before sterilizing the parents. “Given the power to alter the future, have we the right to use it?” the President asks Hasslein.
In a curious reversal of the anti-religious subtext of the first two movies, Escape also brings God into the discussion of whether or not we should, or even can, change divine will. The President points out that Herod tried to kill Jesus, “and it didn’t work out so well for him.” Later, when Lewis brings Zira and Cornelius to a circus for their protection, they speak to the kindly ringleader Armando (Ricardo Montalban), who tells them “I hate those who would alter destiny, which is the unalterable word of God.” Whether you want to chalk it up to Zira and Cornelius’ child, Milo (named after their fallen friend), being a Christ-figure for the future apes or simply that fate is inescapable regardless of a supreme deity, it’s still interesting that the movie would choose to invoke religion until you remember that Escape is steering the franchise into new themes that are worthy of consideration.
The movie not only plays with the notion of predestination, but also whether or not what’s destined should proceed unencumbered regardless of its ultimate conclusion, in this case, the subjugation of humanity and eventual destruction of the planet. It’s a slightly disturbing notion that the President of the United States would be willing to consider allowing this future, although he’s comforted by the fact that it won’t happen in his lifetime. “Maybe they’ll do a better job of it than we have,” says the President. Eerily, they end up doing the same job: dominating what they believe to be a lower species. When the Earth does end, it will be the fault of both humans and apes. It will also be the fault of the past (Taylor) and the future (Ursus).
When Cornelius later reveals his ape pre-history to Hasslein, he explains that a plague wiped out dogs and cats. Looking for a new species to dominate, humans turned to apes, a species much smarter than previous pets. These pets evolved into servants, or rather, slaves, who could perform more advanced tasks. It wasn’t until an ape called “Aldo” said the very first word ever uttered by his species: “No.” We’re left to fill in the gaps, but the conclusion is clear. In order for there to be a dominant species, there must be a submissive species, and that injustice is biologically inherent to primates. Hasslein believes killing Zira, Cornelius, and their unborn child can save humanity when in fact this fear, the fear that the only way to save the Earth is to eliminate any potential threat, is the inescapable weakness and ultimate downfall of a self-aware species.
That’s an incredibly heavy concept in a movie where an ape wears a three-piece suit. For all of its weighty notions about fate and biological imperatives, Escape from the Planet of the Apes is grounded in the relationship between Zira and Cornelius. McDowall and Hunter are so wonderful together, and they reflect not only humanity, but the best of humanity. They’re erudite, confident, smart, and witty. When the panel asks Cornelius if he can talk, he stands up and with regards to Zira he says, “Only when she lets me.” It’s a terrifically self-deprecating remark that has the playful banter we would love to see in any devoted marriage.
In Planet of the Apes, having humans dressed up in ape costumes was a necessary distance to help temper the harshness of their behavior. Having become accustomed to the apes over the course of two movies, and specifically Cornelius and Zira, we now buy them as relatable beings. As the Blu-ray featurette points out, Rod Serling’s original draft for Planet of the Apes had the apes wearing suits, but it looked too ridiculous, so they took on a more neutral look with cleric-like robes. Apes wearing modern-day clothing still looks silly in Escape, but it fits in perfectly with the warm, inviting tone that plays through most of the movie.
Although Escape manages to both play as an opposite of the first movie (apes as the outsiders) and tread new thematic ground, it remains loyal to the fatalism pervading its predecessors. Fear, misunderstanding, and the preservation of a species lead to a tragic and unavoidable end. Hasslein isn’t going to change his mind about apes, the accidental murder of an orderly will prevent Cornelius and Zira from getting a fair trial, and the humans feel they must protect our species future while Cornelius and Zira just want to protect Baby Milo.
It all culminates in an ending that is uniquely disturbing, and in order to get there, the movie has to get a little foolish. The story gets ludicrously dark when Cornelius, accepting the fact that capture means death, asks Lewis for the means to have the ape family commit suicide. “I shouldn’t do this, but I guessed you’d ask,” Lewis says and pulls out a gun. Where did he get a gun? And as a doctor, wouldn’t he be able to procure a far more humane means of suicide?
From there, Zira, Cornelius, and Baby Milo go to hide out on a tanker with the hopes that in a week, the heat will have died down (as if the military is going to give up on apes whose actions could lead to the downfall of the human race), and they can hide in the wild. However, they’re discovered by Hasslein who, rather than inform the military and wait for backup, gets a gun out of the trunk of his car, and decides to take matters into his own hands. Having the army kill Zira and Cornelius, in addition to making more sense, would also have more impact since it would be a twisted reflection of the film’s opening where the military treats the apes humanely. The apes are greeted with peace, but humanity’s actions inevitably lead to violence. Instead, the President’s science advisor goes commando so he can murder a baby chimp and its parents in the belief that doing so will save humanity. I can accept a talking ape wearing a suit; Hasslein’s actions strain credulity.
I can also accept that Zira and Cornelius will come to a tragic end, and even the characters accept it as they’re willing to switch their baby with a baby chimp from the circus in order to keep Baby Milo safe. However, the way it’s played is a devotion to a twist rather than the emotional repercussions of a mother having to give up her child. There’s only the slightest hint that Zira is going to make the switch, but then later she tries to teach the fake Baby Milo, a baby she knows can’t speak, to say “Mama”. Meanwhile, we never see her teach those words to the real Baby Milo.
And yet, even though it’s a rough journey through the film’s climax and it doesn’t make total sense, having the real Baby Milo say “Mama” has as much impact as the ending of the previous two movies. However, the impact doesn’t come from the twist. Having Baby Milo say “Mama” over and over again is incredibly sad, but it’s also disturbingly ominous. Fate cannot be changed. Humanity is doomed. Ape-kind will triumph.
[Tomorrow: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes]
- Planet of the Apes
- Beneath the Planet of the Apes
- Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
- Battle for the Planet of the Apes
- Planet of the Apes (2001)
- Rise of the Planet of the Apes