Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

“Beneath the Planet of the Apes” seemed to provide a rather definitive conclusion to the franchise. The titular planet and all the apes on it was destroyed. Yet commerce finds a way. The continued popularity of the series meant a new film must be made. “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” came up with a rather clever solution to the previous film's apocalyptic ending. What if the apes reverse-engineered Taylor's ship, went back in time, and landed on Earth in the early 1970s? The resulting film earned the best reviews out of any of the sequels, was another box office hit, and remains popular with fans. It's probably my personal favorite of the series.

A mysterious ship has crashed-landed off the Western Coast of America. It is piloted, not by humans, but apes. Cornelius, Zira, and a new character named Dr. Milo managed to escape their world before the Doomsday Bomb destroyed it, traveling through a time warp into the modern day. At first, the trio of apes hide their intelligence from the scientists. After Milo is killed by a modern day gorilla, their true intellect is revealed. Cornelius and Zira are presented to the public and become media darlings. Yet forces in Washington are concerned about what the apes' presence means for the future of mankind. When Zira reveals that she's pregnant, the apes are forced to go the run.

“Escape from the Planet of the Apes” does a canny switcharoo on the original's premise. Instead of being about the sole intelligent man in a world of apes, the sequel is about a trio of intelligent apes in the world of men. This choice solved the budgetary problems that faced “Beneath,” as it only necessitated three costly ape make-ups. Yet it also, smartly, makes Cornelius and Zira the stars of the show. The two apes were already beloved by fans. Making them the proper protagonists was a natural next step. Giving Rodney McDowell and Kim Hunter lead roles allows both performers to shine. McDowell is hilarious, charming, and sympathetic in the lead part while Hunter also shows off an impressive sense of humor and pathos. I've always really liked both characters and am more than happy to spend a whole film with them.

“Escape” seems to flee the last film's dark tone, at first anyway. After revealing their true character to the public, Cornelius and Zira become something like celebrities. This turns “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” into an diverting, fish-out-of-water comedy. McDowell and Hunter trade snippy but sweet dialogue. The apes grow use to such human amenity as fancy clothes, wine, television, and bubble baths. Zira speaks at a woman's lib meaning while Cornelius is taken to a boxing match, which he watches with bemused horror. There's even a genuinely amusing montage of the two trying on fancy clothes. The material probably wouldn't have worked if McDowell and Hunter weren't such affable actors. In execution, it's goofily charming.

That is until the film takes a deliberate tonal shift. Despite its sunnier first half, “Escape” maintains the franchise's tendency for downbeat endings. It might be the most downbeat ending of them all. Probably the franchise's most popular characters are gunned down in cold blood, cruelly and graphically, including their infant off-spring. What was essentially a children's film up to that point ends with all its main characters dead. Yet “Escape” manages this drastic change in direction nicely as well. The “Apes” series has always traded between humor and tragedy. The film smartly follows its situation out to its natural conclusion. Likewise, the mid-story shift towards becoming a chase picture is effective. (Jerry Goldsmith's zippy, spy-movie score also helps facilitate that feeling.) We care about Zira and Cornelius. Their fates are important to us. The film juggles humor, suspense, and calamity in equal measure.

McDowell and Hunter are excellent in the leads but the supporting humans are pretty good too. Bradford Dillman and Natalie Trundy are likable as the veterinarians that are Cornelius and Zira's sole confidants. Eric Braeden plays Dr. Otto Hasslein, the film's de-facto villain. Braeden's performance is surprisingly complicated. He does what he must gravely, considering his severe actions as beneficial to the human race. He delivers a rant, comparing the ape problem to pollution and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, other issues that were seemingly out of control in the early seventies. Almost stealing the show is Ricardo Montalban as Armando, the kindly circus owner that takes the chimps in. Montalban's theatricality and humor adds some much needed levity to the film's darker latter half.

The social commentary present in the first two entries takes something of a back-seat in “Escape,” though feel free to read into a minority couple being persecuted by a ham-fisted government. (The film also contains some obvious Biblical references, for those into that kind of thing.) Shining the spotlight on the franchise's most fascinating characters makes “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” the entry I revisit the most. The mixture of light-hearted humor and surprisingly downbeat denouncement adds a tonally eccentric aspect that I also really enjoy. The original is undoubtedly the better film – one flaw this has is a sequence devoted to explaining time travel, which grinds the pace down – but I probably enjoy this one more for strictly selfish reasons. [9/10]

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