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Ape Management Part 3: Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971)

July 20th, 2011

My epic project to re-watch all of the Planet of the Apes films continues!  Click here for my thoughts on Planet of the Apes, and here for my thoughts on Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

The end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes seemed t0 definitively eliminate the possibility of any further sequels.  (SPOILER ALERT!)  The main characters had all been killed, and in fact the entire planet had been destroyed!  How could there possibly be any further Planet of the Apes stories?

Well, Escape From the Planet of the Apes presents us with the rather silly notion that Cornelius and Zira (once again played by Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter) along with a third ape, Dr. Milo (whose name you shouldn’t bother remembering since this hapless red-shirted third member of the team quickly meets an unfortunate end), had escaped the destruction of the planet because, in the couple of hours in which they were separated from Brent and Nova, they apparently found Brent’s crashed space-ship, repaired it, and then launched it into orbit!  So they weren’t actually ON the Planet of the Apes when everything went BOOM at the end of the last movie!  I can suspend my disbelief enough to enjoy a movie about talking Apes, but this rather ridiculous, desperate attempt to salvage some familiar characters from the previous films is absolutely laughable.

But then again, so is much of Escape From the Planet of the Apes. (Sometimes intentionally so, sometimes not.)  In my mind, this third installment is by far the weakest of the series.  The vast majority of the film’s story is played for laughs.  Instead of the life-and-death, fate-of-the-world struggles of the first two films, this movie spends most of its run-time telling a fish-out-of-water comedy story about Cornelius and Zira, two hyper-intelligent talking apes from the future, learning about 20th century society (from our shopping malls to our “grape juice plus”).

Chairman: “Does the other one talk?”  Cornelius: “Only when she lets me.”

It’s sort of as if the makers of the film series decided that they’d have better luck making an Apes movie for kids.  Except that just like Beneath the Planet of the Apes seemed designed to continue the franchise without Charlton Heston’s participation by introducing the new lead character of Brent, right up until the final five minutes turns unremittingly bleak and Brent is shot dead right on screen, so too does Escape From the Planet of the Apes take a decidedly tragic, not-at-all-for-kids left turn in the final minutes as (SPOILER ALERT!) Cornelius and Zira are hunted down by a distrustful military and brutally murdered!  Once again, I must grudgingly admire the crazy gall of the filmmakers to embrace such a shockingly down-beat ending, but I also have to shake my head and wonder just what the heck they were thinking.  Just who is this movie designed to be for, anyways??  So much of it plays for a younger audience, but those final few minutes would horrify any children watching.  It’s really, really weird.

As doe the rest of the movie, well, my patience for the hour-and-a-half of comedy that precedes the brutal murders tends to vary based on how much I’ve had to imbibe prior to watching the film.  Your mileage may vary similarly!

But booze or no booze, I do always sit up and take notice when the great Ricardo Montalban enters the film in the third act.  The great Khan Noonien Singh plays the role of kindly circus owner Armando, who briefly houses Cornelius and Zira when they’re forced to go on the run.  The role is thinly written, but Mr. Montalban is so much fun to watch, with his wonderful voice and his energetic bluster.  He commands the screen through his sheer force of personality.  The goofy role is really far beneath that which a great talent like Mr. Montalban deserved.  Still, it’s enormous fun to watch!

Armando: “You’re asking me to risk imprisonment for the sake of two fugitive apes? The answer is: a thousand times, yes!”

I’m being a little hard on Escape From the Planet of the Apes, and I really shouldn’t.  To me it’s the weakest of the series by far, but it’s still so much goofy fun that I really can’t judge it too harshly.  (Plus, my friends and I still love to refer to alcohol as “grape juice plus,” so i must at least acknowledge the film’s gift to us of that wonderful little phrase.)

I can imagine that the idea of setting the film in what was then the present-day might have been a desperate attempt to figure out how to continue the film series after the world-ending conclusion of the second film, or a cost-cutting measure to save money on all those elaborate sets and ape costumes seen in the first two films.  But whatever the reason, the result has the unexpected (to me) benefit of proving to be the beginning of an interesting three-film saga that will eventually create a full circle with the original film, moving forward the story of our protagonists while also showing us the origins of the Planet of the Apes.  It’s a fascinating idea, and though I find Escape From the Planet of the Apes to be rather poorly executed, this film will lead us into the far more interesting (though also, don’t fear, plenty silly and ridiculous) fourth and fifth films.

See you there!

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