Those who sat through the stupendously depressing ending of Beneath The Planet Of The Apes would be completely forgiven for angrily muttering “oh fuck off” upon hearing he news that 20th Century Fox had launched another apes based adventure. To be utterly spoilerific to those not in the know, the previous installment climaxed with the human leads either all dead or fatally riddled with bullets and with a final gasp at the ludicrous nature of where fate has brought him, Charlton Heston’s Taylor slumps over the activation panel of an unexploded atom bomb, thereby detonating almost all the other characters. As the screen flashes white and the credits roll as if to say “we’re done here, please leave”, the harsh abruptness felt both daring and lazy at the same time but also left a major question hanging in the irradiated air: where the fuck could this series possibly go next? The answer? Somewhere cheaper. This neatly leads us through timey-wimey space portal to Escape From The Planet Of The Apes; an above average hail mary play that stubbonly keeps the franchise on life support while hand feeding us the kind of cruel nihilism we’ve come to expect from the series.
A rescue mission retrieving a spacecraft that has crashed into the ocean are stunned when the three astronauts on board remove their helmets to reveal that they are in fact intelligent apes who have been flung back in time.
Fleeing from an interspecies war from their own time (apparently the militaristic gorillas were starting all kinds of shit just before Heston nuked the place) we are reintroduced to Dr. Zira and her husband Cornelius who where piloting the craft. Joined by their third chimpanzee companion, fellow scientist Dr. Milo, they go through the usual testing, confusion and surprise when the headstrong Zira lets slip that they can talk and after Milo is killed by a freak accident (damn gorillas, always fucking things up) the married couple are eventually released after a well publicised hearing. Thus follows the usual fish out of water shenanigans as society initially embraces the couple and coos and claps as they try to adapt to life in the 1970’s and wearing people clothes that look like Austin Powers’ hand me downs. Of course no one stays happy or safe for long and the while the President is content to let the apes live in peace even when the news of what eventually happens to mankind publicly comes out, the news of Zira’s pregnancy sends POTUS’s science advisor into an existential tail spin. Having Zira and Cornelius taken in for more stern questioning leads him to decide to abort the unborn chimp and humanely sterilize the couple, therefore theoretically saving the human race of the distant future.
With help from two scientists who have befriended them Zira and Cornelius escape from their captors and go on the run while desperately try to not go out in a hail of bullets like an anthropoid Bonnie & Clyde. With the world seemingly against them, how long can two fugitive apes possibly remain undiscovered before man catches them in his sights?
While Escape From The Planet Of The Apes’ central premise of apes from a distant future arriving in our after managing to reverse engineer time travel is as unlikely as a fish winning the Tour De France, it actually makes a huge amount of sense thematically. After all, it’s really the only place a continuing story could possibly go after the previous movie led us down it’s apocalyptically atomic cul-de-sac. It also allows the central ape duo of Zira and Cornelius (Kim Hunter and a triumphantly returning Roddy McDowell who was replaced in the last one) to deservedly take centre stage as the main characters in this soul crushing sad tale. It’s a winning idea, not only because the sweetly bickering ape couple the most interesting characters in the entire “classic” section of the franchise, but both Hunter and McDowell are fucking awesome with the former’s glittering, mischievous eyes infusing Zira with a strong willed defiance and the latter bringing a level head to the more reserved husband. They pretty much carry a film that at times, and I’m being generous here, has all the scale of a particularly lavish TV movie.
Admittedly the visual majesty and elegance of the original has all but dissipated thanks to the more contemporary setting and losing the fascinating looks at future ape culture is also a massive blow, but thankfully EFTPOTA still has enough brains and empathy to counter it’s obvious drop in scale. Tempering it’s more pulpy aspects by addressing some of the hot topics of the time (scientific experimentation on animals, nuclear war and government intrusion sound familiar to you?) the film even chooses to the give Dr. Hasslein, the movie’s “villian”, a valid reason to be an almighty ass-hat as his fears that Zira’s offspring will eventually lead to a mass ape revolt is actually well founded – although having the President’s science advisor grab a pistol from the boot of his car and start to stalk the simian couple through the dock like he’s baby killing Dirty Harry is a bit fucking much. This leads us to EFTPOTA’s astonishingly harsh yet inevitable climax that somehow manages to be more shocking and downbeat that Beneath’s nuking of the entire world thanks to it being far more intimate.
As budget slashing sequels go, Escape could easily have been a whole lot worse, but as it stands it’s noticeably the best of the original 4 sequels (not to mention the flea bitten Tim Burton remake) and manages to be in turns touching and tragic as the sizable charisma of the two lead animated out from their latex entombed heads and manage to enfuse the entire movie.
Pulling nicely out of the dead-end the previous movie blindly lead the series into and actually giving the franchise somewhere to go, Escape From The Planet Of The Apes manages to a multitude of fairly impressive tricks – it even finds room for an always welcome appearance of Ricardo Montalbán as a roguish but kindly circus owner who offers our heroes shelter – while dishing out the requisite depressing sci-fi ending that the series has become known for.
A chimp off the old block.