You’d think that blowing up the world would have been enough of a nail in The Planet of the Apes coffin but somehow, Hollywood found a way. Beneath the Planet of the Apes, although underwhelming, was still a success for 20th Century Fox in 1970. Despite the films end-all-ending, producer Arthur P. Jacobs still saw potential in the property and re-enlisted Beneath screenwriter Paul Dehn to pen another Apes flick that had to have all entertainment of the first two at about half the budget.
But in a strange twist of fate, a simple case of Hollywood greed turned into a good thing. Escape from the Planet Apes took the franchise in a completely original direction that not only gave two of the franchise’s most likable characters the spotlight but a clever, heartfelt, and thought-provoking story that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Twilight Zone. Watch out for spoilers!
Taking notice of Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira’s (Kim Hunter) absence from the last half of Beneath, screenwriter Paul Dehn places the ape couple, plus the new addition of Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo), escaping future Earth a la Superman-style aboard Taylor’s rebuilt spaceship and heading to modern day Earth. Once the trio arrives on Earth they are immediately placed into a zoo on an army base–yes, the army has a zoo. This places the film’s tone in a much lighter territory. A comedic shift was a welcomed change of pace after the unintentionally hilarious seriousness of Beneath.
After their capture, the apes befriend a well-meaning pair of scientists, Stephanie (Natalie Trundy) and Lewis (Bradford Dillman). These scientists discover the ape’s full potential and become their greatest proponents after the U.S. government comes to believe the apes could be potentially dangerous. Things take a sour turn for the trio after Dr. Milo is killed by another non-genius Ape while in detainment. Demanding better living conditions and to be acknowledged as equals, Zira and Cornelius go on trial and in no time are charming the pants off the court with their sharp wit. This leads to them becoming celebrities, going from gala to gala, party to party. But there’s still one cold figure who isn’t convinced of their good intentions, the brooding President’s Science Advisor Dr. Hasslein. (Eric Bareden)
Somewhere down the line, Zira becomes pregnant but is unjustly apprehended by Dr. Hasslein. He performs psychological tests but is put to a stop by Cornelius and his science friends. All throughout the chaos, an orderly is killed by Cornelius and the apes must go on the run. They go to the circus where they meet a charming ringmaster played by Ricardo Montalban. Zira gives birth to a baby chimp, naming it after Dr. Milo, but before you know it they’re on the run again.
The film progresses to a final shootout between Cornelius and Dr. Hasslein on a docked cruise liner. Cornelius kills Hasslein but is in turn fatally wounded, Zira also severely wounded from the skirmish dumps the baby in the nearby harbor. The two die in each other’s arms and everybody’s sad. It is only in the film’s closing scene that the audience discovers Zira switched her chimp child with an average chimp from the circus. This leaves the film’s closing shot focused on a young chimp in a cage. Miraculously, the young ape starts to say “Mama, mama”. A haunting end to an at times uplifting but also heartbreaking film.
Escape is exactly what this series needed. The twisting of the environment and protagonists gave the series a new perspective and brings to light interesting ideas regarding profiling and prejudice. McDowall and Hunter got a chance to show their well-honed skills as lead actors instead of side characters. It’s an original story that didn’t rely on the past films to make it what it was. My only complaint is the film looks cheap like it was a made-for-TV-movie. We’ll see if lightning strikes twice in the same place next time when I’ll be watching The Battle of the Planet of the Apes!