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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Escape from the Planet of the Apes

The third installment in the Planet of the Apes saga sidesteps the inconvenient truth of how the second film ended -- with the nuclear destruction of Earth. Handily, three of the chimpanzees: Zira, Cornelius and a Dr. Milo, fly Taylor's ship back in time to 1973 to start up a new parallel storyline. This story amounts to the first movie's scenario told from the other side. In Escape From the Planet of the Apes (EFPA), Roddy McDowall returns as Cornelius. Kim Hunter continues on as Zira. New are, Sal Mineo in a brief role as Dr. Milo. Eric Braedon (from Colossus) plays the brooding Dr. Otto Hasslein. Ricardo Montalban plays the flamboyant circus owner, Armando.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Taylor's pointy spacecraft floats off the California coast. When hauled ashore, the army brass are shocked that the three astronauts are human-sized chimpanzees. Presumed to be "just" animals that somehow got aboard, Zira, Cornelius and Dr. Milo are taken to a zoo infirmary. They are studied by Dr. Lewis Dixon and Dr. Stephanie Branton. Zira eventually speaks. A gorilla in the next cage strangles Dr. Milo. He's dead. Lewis presents Cornelius and Zira to a presidential committee. They are all astounded too. The two become guest celebrities around Los Angeles for awhile. Zira faints at a museum. She's pregnant. Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braedon) suspects there is some ominous untold story. He gets Zira drunk on "grape juice plus". She tells some incriminating backstory from the prior movies. Hasslain later gives her 'truth serum' and gets more worrisome backstory. The future in which apes eventually subjugate humans worries him deeply. He lobbies with the president (William Windom) to abort the baby and sterilize the parents to prevent the dark future. The president refuses on moral grounds. Meanwhile, Cornelius unintentionally kills their hospital orderly. So, he and Zira escape into the night. Zira becomes too disabled with contractions to continue. Cornelius finds Stephanie. She and Lewis take them to a circus run by Armando (Ricardo Montalban). There, Zira gives birth to her baby chimp. Just before the police close in, Zira, Cornelius and baby Milo escape again into the night. Before they leave, Zira says goodbye to Heloise (a "real" chimp) and her baby. Lewis directs them to an abandoned oil tanker to hide in until the search subsides. Eventually Hasslein finds them on the ship. He corners Zira and shoots her, then shoots the bundle of "Milo". Cornelius shoots Hasslein with a gun Lewis gave him. Police sniper kill Cornelius. Zira drops dead Milo into the harbor, then goes to die on dead Cornelius. Cut to Armando's circus striking camp for the winter. Heloise's baby is wearing the St. Francis medal Armando gave him. Baby chimp speaks. "Mama, mama." Fade to black, roll credits.

Why is this movie fun?
Turning the by-now-classic original Planet of the Apes plot inside out, is kind of fun all by itself. Director Don Taylor, with much experience directing for television, keeps the pace brisk and action moving. Some of it may be predictable, but it's never stale.

Cultural Connection
There is a steady undercurrent of commentary on racism throughout EFPA. This, it shares with the prior two films. The allegory is made even more apparent when Cornelius describes how (in the first timeline) apes were slaves of humans, doing their menial work, etc. But the apes of the year 250 (or so) organized themselves and revolted. Many of the scenes where the humans are condescending or insulting or prejudiced to Cornelius and Zira can easily be seen as racism allegory -- still a touchy issue after the Civil Rights clashes of the 60s.

Role Reversal -- The story in EFPA is rather intentionally the mirror image of the first film -- to a large extent, but not completly. Strangers land on a planet, pretend to be mute amid "lower" animals who can speak. The planet's authorities are philosophically disturbed by the newcomers and want them dead. There is a grand chase. There is a recast of the scene where words are first spoken. There is a council who refuse to accept the inconvenient truth. There are a couple of sympathetic doctors who help the newcomers escape.

Sequel Certainty -- The ending of EFPA is clearly constructed to allow a sequel. Zira swapped her advanced-chimp baby with the chimp Heloise's plain-baby chimp. Veteran movie watchers usually see this twist coming. The fourth film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes ('72) would, indeed, pick up on the grown offspring of Cornelius and Zira 20 years later, though he would be renamed "Caesar". He would be played by Roddy McDowall, though, so son sounds like father.

Plot Holes? -- Some viewers find it too much of a stretch that Dr. Milo could fix up and fly Taylor's space ship, AND that they'd be thrown back in time to very near Taylor's time. Granted, Milo is a bit of a Dies ex Machina character, but a necessary one to get the plot role reversal. Cornelius does describe Milo as extremely intelligent. Consider too, that the backwards technological state of the Apes' world of 3952 may be due more to brutish "gorilla" influence than the chimps' lack of ability. Two years are said to have elapsed between Taylor's mission and Brent's. Ample time for the science chimps to have salvaged Taylor's ship (which did land intact), and figure it out. They didn't have to invent it, just figure out how to fly it. Given the deadly war that loomed in the second film, it's not too surprising that Milo opted to escape in the ship. Perhaps the plan was to set down on some other part of the planet -- far from the war. Instead, the shock wave from the nuke blast is the magic catalyst that hurls the ship back in time. Incredible, yes, but no less incredible than the never-explained force that brought Taylor there in the first place.

Pre-Terminator -- Hasslein argues with the president, that they (the humans of 1973) must kill the unborn baby to prevent the rise of the planet of the apes (and subjugation of humans). The president objects that he's promoting assassination. Hasslein counters that the Allies tried to assassinate Hitler (so it must be an okay tool whenever desired -- a curious logic there). The president then quips, would it have been okay to kill Adolf in his childhood, or kill his mother before she bore him, or Hitler's ancestors before her? In this exchange, we get a glimpse of the time-convolutions to come in movies like The Terminator and many more.

Pre-PETA -- Much of the film tries to be a wagging finger of shame for how people treat animals. While implied subtly in the first film, the drum is beaten loud and several times in EFPA.

Holes in Darwin -- As much as the Apes movies are thought to be pro-evolution, just about everything about them undermines the comfy classic darwinist construct. In the original movie timeline, apes were taken in as pets (since all the dogs and cats were killed by a plague). In 200 years they were speaking. In 300 they were a slave class that revolted. This is not the slow-and-steady mutation model at work. Then there is the quasi-divine interjection in the new timeline. Plain chimps, when bred with Milo's future-chimp DNA, become the super chimps. They didn't evolve either. There was an outside intervention. Slow-and-steady does make for boring movies, but perhaps writers (and viewers) also secretly have trouble accepting the classic model.

Bottom line? EFPA is a cut above most sequels and far above most second-sequels. The story is familiar, since it is the first movie told in an alternate universe sort of way. There is little in the way of special effects. EFPA is not especially science-y for a fiction, but plays as more of a suspense drama. Fans of the franchise seem to enjoy this third installment. It does require familiarity with both prior films, though. Seen out of sequence, it won't flow as well.


Randall Landers said...

A good review of a good movie. I personally liked the casting of Bradford Dilman in the role of the scientist Dr. Lewis Dixon and the casting of Natalie Trundy as his fellow scientist Stephanie Branton. Trundy had appeared in the previous BTPOTA and went on to appear in the next two sequels as well as Lisa.

I also really think the striking scene was when the apes disembark the reconstructed spaceship in full space gear and then take off their helmets to reveal they're chimps. Terrific scene!

kochillt said...

Kudos to Eric Braeden, whose character, Dr. Otto Hasslein, was actually referenced by Taylor in the first APES (and kudos to scriptwriter Paul Dehn for this knowing detail). Hasslein starts out as the thoughtful scientist we've been led to believe, but gradually becomes obsessed with exterminating Cornelius and Zira, ending up a truly heinous villain. In the current corrupt state of the White House, what interesting conversations he had with William Windom's practical, well cast US President!