The Earth of the 40th century is destroyed. The planet of the apes is no more. And thank god, too, after yesterday’s awful movie Beneath the Planet of the Apes. This whole Serious About Series thing is over. Go home. No more movies to see here.
What’s that, you say? It made money? And somebody bought the rights to make more sequels based on the idea? But there’s nothing left! Everyone is dead. I mean, you’d have to retcon away… oh.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
A spaceship crashes in 1970s Earth. The United States government recognizes it as one of theirs, but when they open it up inside are three apes. Fan favorites Cornelius and Zira, and new ape Dr. Milo (guess which one of those is expendable?) restored Taylor’s original ship and used it to escape off-planet. The destruction of Earth threw them through time back to where the ship originated.
The Earth government takes the apes to the zoo, not sure what to do with them. Dr. Milo has them all act like savage apes, so the humans won’t know who they’ve got, worried that if they find out they’ll treat them with the same fear and disdain that ape culture treated Taylor and Brent with in the previous films.
But two scientists testing the apes’ intelligence make contact with Zira, who becomes the de facto speaker for the group. The scientists are forward-thinking and compassionate. They instantly treat the apes as intelligent beings. Maybe, just maybe, things will go okay, and ignorance and fear are mere worries. They just won’t tell humanity the fate they escaped, the world they came from, and settle down and create a better life.
The apes, now media celebrities, go out on the town amid a swell of fans and paparazzi. They attend parties, wear human clothes, and are treated as something akin to a very smart dog, the center of attention and given a sort of adoration that never equates with respect or regard as a fellow being. We get the whiff of pilgrims converting Native Americans, of slave owners Westernizing those fresh off the boat from Africa.
But when Zira, after having too much wine given to her by the Presidential science advisor, divulges the fate of Earth and her own pregnancy, the government forces the truth out of them. The fate of humanity, the oppression of the apes, Zira’s own complicity in the rounding up and examination of dozens if not hundreds of humans in scientific experiments. The government decides that in order to prevent the eventual ape uprising and far-flung destruction of the planet they must kill the apes and the unborn baby.
Zira and Cornelius flee with the help of their original scientist friends. Zira gives birth to her baby at a circus, trading her intelligent ape baby with a primitive one recently born to a savage chimpanzee. The circus leader, played by Ricardo Montalban, promises to raise the baby, teaching it as if it were his own son. Good thing he does, as Zira, Cornelius, and the supposed intelligent baby are all hunted and gunned down by the military shortly thereafter, leaving the last intelligent ape in hiding.
Despite my previous skepticism, what is most amazing about Escape is that it’s actually a good movie. So much care seemingly went into the layers of ideas presented in the film. Gone are the heavy-handed allegories, in are people actually being nuanced in their discussions and actions. The early predestination paradox presented by time travel is identified and becomes the driving force of the plot. Do they do nothing and hope the uprising doesn’t happen? Do they act, and perhaps unwittingly cause the uprising? Media obsession, ethnocentrism, the idea of culturally-acceptable atrocities, all these things are brought up and addressed with an even-handed detachment that is so fundamentally different from the cheese of the first two movies that it might as well be an entirely different movie. A much better movie.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes is certainly much smaller and much less adventure-heavy than the first two, but it fares better for the smaller frame its ideas are put in. It’s a breath of fresh air, a way to revitalize the basic concept into something worthwhile, no mere far-future tribal effects show, but a place more meditative and layered, less fun perhaps and certainly more bleak, but with a soul.