Continuing my look back on the Planet of the Apes films, we finally come to the movie that defined the series as a franchise once and for all. Sure, we had a sequel with Beneath the Planet of the Apes, but that one could have worked as a one-off, especially considering its apocalyptic ending designed to dissuade more entries from being made. From beginning to end, the third film sets in stone that the apes are here to stay, and there is no longer any hope for...
Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971)
From the very beginning, Escape From the Planet of the Apes is a smaller film than the first two. Whereas the budget for the original was $5 million, the budget for the second one was cut in half, ending at $2.5 million. This one brought the budget down even further to a meager $2 million, a trend that was showing no sign of stopping. The story is smaller and more low key than the first two in the series, the tone is lighter, and the action more restrained. In some ways this lends itself well to the story being told, but in others it just makes for a less memorable addition to the franchise. It feels like a necessary stepping stone to the more violent Conquest of the Planet of the Apes that came after it rather than a great piece of story-telling in its own right.
What's perhaps most odd about the movie is how it takes place in a world dominated by men, yet none of the human characters stand out. This is in stark contrast with Beneath the Planet of the Apes which took place in the world of the apes, but all the memorable parts belong to the humans. With the exception of Ricardo Montalban as a kindly circus owner, the rest of the human cast are cut-and-paste white people in suits, just some are bad and some are good.
The story is lazier, trying to do nothing more than be a reverse remake of the first film. But this time instead of Charlton Heston crash landing on a planet of apes, this one sees Dr. Zira and Dr. Cornelius (Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall reprising their roles from the first film) repairing Taylor's ship (again from the original) and taking off to time warp back to 1970's LA just before the world blows up (from Beneath the Planet of the Apes). Perhaps the biggest problem with the movie isn't its plot or even its restraint, but with its contrived feeling and inconsistency.
For instance, the first film established a future where apes evolved to become the head species and man had devolved to nothing more than a beast. A main point of controversy for the ape society was their beginnings. Cornelius stood on the side of science, contesting that apes must have evolved to this point after some other more advanced race had died out. He has speculations that man might have been that evolved species, but he has no proof of what actually conspired. Dr. Zaius as well, reveals that he knows that man had been the dominant species thousands of years ago (due to secret writings in his sacred scrolls) but in neither of the first two films does he let on that he knows the whole history of the rise of the apes.
In Escape From the Planet of the Apes, however, Cornelius lays out for us in great detail how man met his fall by first domesticating then enslaving apes, leading to the uprising, even naming ape heroes who stood out in the revolt. He attributes this knowledge to special access to secret documents outlying all this information. When did he gain this knowledge? He certainly didn't know it during the events of the first film, and showed no signs of having learned it during the second one. Why was Dr. Zaius not aware of this? Or was he the world's best secret keeper, even to the point of letting the world blow up? The only way this makes sense is if Cornelius was granted access to these documents during the few days before the world's end, a time when the rest of the ape community did not look kindly on Cornelius and Zira, despite Dr. Zaius' attempts to put them in power. The inconsistencies with their story and the events that happen in the next two sequels can be accounted for, as one could argue that Cornelius' and Zira's presence in 70's LA changes the events of the future. This is just one of many lazy story points thrown in because the plot could not advance otherwise. Because the ending to the last film had made it so difficult to convincingly make a sequel, we're left with a shell of a plot designed to continue a franchise past its logical end.
But that doesn't make the film a complete waste. It departs drastically from the heavy tone of the first two films for a lighter, sillier romp in "modern" day America that's at least different from what we've seen before. Whole montages of Cornelius and Zira interacting with the confused humans is perhaps one of the most fun things about the movie. The way the humans cautiously welcome and examine the heroes is a stark contrast to how the ape civilization feared and despised the humans in the first film. And although it does take a dark left turn to become an entirely different movie halfway through, it still manages to stand out as something more kid friendly and humorous.
The one element it does hold in common with all the other films is the dark ending. But whereas the first two films left you with a sense of hopelessness, this one ends on a glimmer of light that, while hopeful, is still terrifying in its implications. In the long run, this entry in the series is doomed to be remembered as, "that Apes movie where they dress in fancy clothes and rink wine", and not much else. It's a contrived film meant to do nothing more than advance the series, and even its hopeful ending was originally conceived not to lessen the dark ending, but to ensure the filmmakers wouldn't paint themselves into another corner like they did with Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
Because of course the gods of Twentieth Century Fox demanded that another film be made after this one. But what they got wasn't quite what they expected...
Joe is a short film director and film enthusiast. You can follow him on Twitter here.