Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 25, 2015)
Since 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes apparently ended with the destruction of that world, I couldn’t help but wonder how 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes would work. The third flick in the Apes series comes up with a slippery but interesting solution: reverse time travel!
When the planet went kaboom at the end of Beneath, it turns out that three chimp scientists were in orbit. The blast sends their ship back to 20th century Earth. There Zira (Kim Hunter), Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Milo (Sal Mineo) get taken into custody by the US military. The simians don’t reveal their advanced development, so the authorities see them as simple apes – albeit very intelligent ones.
Our threesome agree not to speak or otherwise tip their collective hand, but Zira lets their secret be known when she tires of tedious cognitive tests. An agitated gorilla then inadvertently kills Milo, and psychiatrist Dr. Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman) gets to know the survivors better and they become friends.
In the meantime, the military discovers that the spacecraft piloted by the chimps is the same one manned by Taylor from the first flick. Soon Zira and Cornelius come forward with their story, though they don’t tell the main authorities about the Earth’s fate and their familiarity with Taylor.
After a successful press conference, Zira and Cornelius become the toast of human society. They integrate quickly and receive a warm welcome. However, the Feds start to learn the secrets of the future, and some of them become disturbed.
In particular, presidential advisor Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) deems them a threat to long-term human survival. He wants them axed, so he gets the president (William Windom) to authorize interrogation. The rest of the film follows how the government deals with the apes and their attempts to survive various threats. Matters become even more urgent when we learn that Zira is pregnant and will give birth soon.
If nothing else, Escape offers a considerable improvement over the crummy Beneath. That movie was a largely pointless exercise in idiocy, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. Escape never matches up to the original Apes, but it manages to pave its own path and become entertaining.
The turnabout inherent in its plot allows it to offer many fun moments. Escape works best during its first half, as it follows the “fish out of water” aspects. I like the way it allows the apes to develop in society and make themselves known. McDowall and Hunter offer lively performances that wring the most of their opportunities.
Unfortunately, once the movie’s main plot kicks in, the flick starts to decline. The main problem stems from its inherent lack of logic. Escape builds Hasslein as its villain. When he learns apes will blow up Earth in 2000 years, he wants to kill Zira, Cornelius and their baby. He believes that this will alter the future and prevent the eventual ape dominance.
That’s an interesting twist, and it provokes some concepts that would later be explored in other flicks like Minority Report. However, Hasslein’s idea makes no sense, since I don’t see how killing apes from the end of future civilization will prevent their ancestors from domination.
As the movie explains, apes evolved to the sophisticated level we saw in the first two movies; it’s not like Zira and Cornelius were the ones who prompted these developments. Killing them would have absolutely no effect on the future. It’d be like murdering Angela Merkel to stop Hitler.
That side of things becomes so convoluted that it borders on incoherence. In any case, I don’t think Escape needs to follow that plot. I guess that the filmmakers felt they needed more drama and action so they chose this storyline to pursue it. Escape probably would be more interesting if it simply examined the lives the apes live in 20th century society and didn’t bother with the action side of things, though.
All of this means that Escape doesn’t threaten to become a great Apes flick, but it usually remains interesting. Sure, it drags as it progresses, and the ending is kind of goofy. Nonetheless, it manages to be an intriguing departure from the first two movies and it does its job well enough to be moderately positive.