Posted: 07/14/2001

 

Escape from the Planet of the Apes

(1971)

by Barry Meyer



The Apes have escaped their planet, now they must escape the humans of Earth.


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Again with the surprised, wide-eyed looks as man sees Ape speak for the first time! As a sequel, Escape From the Planet of the Apes is really just a rehash of the original Planet of the Apes with a clever little twist. This time the Apes have landed on the planet of the humans.

Lt. Taylor’s long lost spaceship (which crash landed on the Ape planet in the 1st film) has mysteriously reappeared, landing in the waters off the coast of California. As the ships occupants climb out of the craft they are met by some military brass, who have gathered to greet their long lost crew. Instead of finding Taylor and his crew, the brass are met by three Apes. The Apes are met by dropped jaws. The Apes, Zira (Kim Hunter), Cornelius (Roddy McDowall returning to the chimp role), and Milo (Sal Mineo in a role way too small for his talents), are sequestered in the zoo to be examined.

The U.S. Space Program has already sent chimps into space, so the sight of these three chimp-onauts isn’t the huge deal you’d expect. Nonetheless, the monkeys are placed under the care of Dr. Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman), and put through a barrage of tests, hoping to discover some reason why these animals were flying the spaceship instead of Taylor and his fellow astronauts. Leery of the humans, the chimps conceal their abilities to speak. But after a humiliating fetch-the-banana test Zira is offended and lets Dr. Dixon have an earful. “I simply loathe bananas,” she cries.

Soon all of America has learned about these cute, adorable talking monkeys, and they become a sensational hit. They are shuffled off to attend celebrity gatherings, and they go to the hippest entertainment events. They become the hottest celebrities in the country, adored by all.

Well, almost all. There’s the small matter of the White House Senior Scientific Advisor, Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden boning up his bad guy image in practice for his role of Victor Newman on The Young and the Restless). Otto is not too keen with these chimps monkeying around on Mother Earth. He tries to convince the President (William Windom) that the mere existence of the advanced simians will throw off the nature of man’s existence, destroying mankind as it presently exists. Fortunately for the Apes, the Prez feels they are not a threat. Otto must find another way to get rid of the Apes.

Under the influence of a truth serum, administered by Doc Otto, Zira begins to unfold the mystery of her and her cohorts origins. She explains the amazing story of how she and Cornelius (now her husband) had helped Taylor escape the clutches of the tyrannical Orangutans, and how the three chimps escaped just before their own planet blew up. Otto uses Zira’s testimony in front of a Congressional hearing, in hopes of having the chimps destroyed. As it turns out, the panelist seemed more in awe of the findings, and are pleasantly amazed at the gentle nature of the chimps. That is until Otto questions Zira about her many human experiments back on the Ape planet. Things take a nose-dive for the chimps once it’s revealed that humans were treated like animals, and used for sadistic medical experiments. Though Zira protests that their beloved Lt. Taylor was never hurt, Otto shocks the panel when he exposes that Zira had performed a lobotomy on one of Taylor’s fellow astronaut. Suddenly the chimp’s are about as popular as Pee Wee Herman in a Florida smut house.

The Apes have escaped their planet, now they must escape the humans of Earth.

Escape From the Planet of the Apes is by far the most charming of the Ape saga movies, with it’s fun look at celebrity, and it’s hip-shaking music. It’s also the least evocative of the first three Apes films. Once again we have the stranger-in-a-strange-land scenario, with all it’s wide-eyed wow-they-talk looks, that cropped up in the earlier films. We get the point! Talking apes are weird! Let’s move on already.

It seems as though the studio wanted to shed the brooding mood of the earlier, more pensive films, and make an Ape movie that was a tad more upbeat. That’s not to say that this film lacks all commentary. It’s the 70’s afterall, and the text of these Ape films are hot-button topics that surely needed to be discussed. This time with a little less earnestly. It’s the third go around here, so maybe the studio felt that some light-heartedness would crisp up the stale subject matter.

What writer Paul Dehn (author of most of the Ape films) has done, essentially, is turned Planet of the Apes inside-out, with the Apes now being the out of towners. In both films the visitors come under close scrutiny by the inhabitants, who seek to uncover the true nature of the intruders. But, it’s the planet’s inhabitants who are exposed under the critical eye of the audience. On the Ape planet the inhabiting Apes mistreatment of the humans is representative of how, in a small way, humans treat animals, and, in a major way, how Whites treat minorities. On planet Earth the inhabiting humans are representative of, well, humans. Whites, again more specifically. The planets have been cleverly switched around, but as far as the heavy discussion of social issues and racial tensions go—no new ground has been tread upon.

Director Don Taylor (Damien: Omen II), handily pulls small bits of comedy out of the frightful situation that the chimps are placed in, being captives on a strange planet. The chimps tease the befuddled, naïve human doctors by skillfully solving any inane task they place in front of them, be it a simple block test, or the elaborate construction of a platform used to fetch a banana of all things. We share in their delight as Zira and Cornelius discover the enjoyments of a technically advanced society, where people live in homes with clean shag carpeting instead of dirt floors, and television sets are everywhere. They go on a shopping spree together, trying on the latest fashions on Rodeo Drive. Cornelius gets swept up in the excitement and fury of a boxing match. Zira is invited to key note at a Woman’s Lib function.

Just as with Beneath the Planet of the Apes, the action sequences and the cinematography (done by Joseph F. Biroc) are noticeable weak spots. But the most glaring blemish in this film is the very thing that I praised in the earlier films—the make-up. I really enjoyed the non-overly-realistic look of the ape get ups when I was a kid, and I would still rather see that then the all-too-real appearances of the apes in Tim Burton’s upcoming bastardization of the original movie. But, for crying out loud, I swear I could see Roddy McDowall’s real mouth through the ape mouth. I couldn’t tell if it was sloppy workmanship or bad lighting, or both, or maybe it was the use of way too many close-ups, but the make-up was very obvious this time around. You don’t need a trained eye to clearly see where the prosthetic wigs and ape mouths had been glued on. I don’t understand why this happened, since the Ape films had become quite the moneymakers, and the studios were not pinching their purses.

Not the best in the Ape saga, but still it’s great popcorn munching fare.

Barry Meyer is a writer living in New Jersey. He’s worked in the film and television biz for the past 10+ years.



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