Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Naptown Nerd Goes Ape: Escape From The Planet Of The Apes (1971)

Escape From The Planet Of The Apes
Director: Don Taylor
Starring: Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall, Bradford Dillman, Natalie Trundy, Eric Braedon, Sal Mineo and RICARDO MONTALBON!
Rated: wait for it...G!

Think of it as grape
           ~Dr. Lewis Dixon

When I was younger this was easily my favorite of the sequels.  Escpae brought the Apes to Earth in modern times.  You have to kind of shrug off this whole time travel mumbo jumbo of a new chimp Milo having fixed up Taylor's space ship in just enough time to evade the nuke going off in Beneath.  There was nowhere to really go from that, so this is the likely destination.  It also reverses the roles of the apes in the first two films, letting them have the fish out of water tale this time around in a setting we can now laugh at instead of being drawn in by a mystery. 
20th Century Fox wanted a sequel after Beneath was a hit.  But as I mentioned last time, sequels weren't treated as they are now.  Fox wanted more but realized that it would likely have less of a return than the previous one, but would likely still be plenty to take in.  Thus, the budget gets cut once again.  And smartly, this film's story is one that accommodates the budget.  With the film taking place in the 70s, they now only had to do make up on 3 actors and only one of them had to be done up for a couple scenes.  Structurally this was a fish out of water personalycomedy/drama journey so no elaborate sets really needed to be built either.  And the one action sequence it does have is on the lighter end and didn't take much more than a cop drama or television show at the time would have required.  Its pretty crafty and really goes unnoticed as the movie is interesting enough to keep you from thinking about all this (unless you've seen it a bunch and need to analyze these things like me).
While its light on the action, danger and sci-fi this time around, Escape takes to secretly tackling social and political issues at the time as well.  You'll find a strong Jesus-type reference in the birth of Milo as well as many racial undertones being used in place of the apes.  In a manner that's not kept so under the rug, Escape takes a very strong pro-life stance in a scene involving the preseident on the United States and declining the villain to be able to put down Cornelius and Zira's baby upon birth.  While these Apes films look like dated, corny sci-fi movies that kids enjoy, you'd be absolutely wrong to think that.  Most of them contain pretty deep and adult subtext tackling issues of their time which make this one of the strongest sci-fi franchises around.
Roddy McDowall returns to play Cornelius again, but this is our last go around with Kim Hunter as Zira.  While its sad, Hunter is absolute dynamite in this film and is the film's true star.  Hunter goes out giving a fun and charming performance by Zira, expanding the character in natural ways.  She opens her up for us to see a new side of her.  Par for the course, this happy little fish out of water tale ends in your typical Planet of the Apes bloodbath fashion as Cornelius and Zira are chased away and killed in a firefight at the end.  Its a truly brutal and disturbing ending.  My catchphrase for the series is probably "And this is rated G??"  But really, we get the Apes shot up, falling off of a ocean liner and the baby ape (who we think is baby Milo) fired on at point blank range.  Its a disturbing finale and its definitely acknowledged by the onlooking characters.  The the tone of the film takes a drastic shift at the end and another to finish.  It makes you feel pretty disgusted watching it, like you wanna take a shower or something.
But alas!  This time Fox was planning to do a 4th film after this one.  So the seeds were set for the fourth Apes movie.  You can't just go and grab legendary actor Ricardo Montalban and use him for just a scene or two.  The circus and baby Milo are all set up for the next movie.  And we end on the creepy cliffhanger of the baby figuring out how to say "Mama".  To add to the creepiness the film is keeps going back and forth on the apes mouth moving playing and reversing.  This was the end of Cornelius and Zira, but the beginning of what would lead us to how the original movie came to be.  Its intriguing to get film that progresses the series, yet gives us plenty of background and origin information as well. 
Escape is a complete 180 from the first two films, but definitely feels right at home in the series.  It flips the table on us and goes with a new direction, allowing the series to continue in a new way instead of just retreading the ape village again.  It is lacking in the amusement of really cool set design that the first wo had that I could sit and wonder at.  Setting things in modern times brought about that sacrifice, but I did miss it.  Sometimes a series doesn't work when they go for this drastic of a change to the formula.  Its normally the last ditch effort or that bizarre entry that sticks out (a la Halloween III).  Here is one of the few cases where it worked and things stuck.  Its a fun film with another insanely dark ending.

Next Time: Apes rally as humans folly

I love how the marketing for this movie revolved around something that doesn't happen until the last 1/3 fo the film

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