Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Planet of the Apes — chronicling the epic and turbulent history of a civilization of evolutionary advanced apes – particularly the bloodline of two chimps, Zira and Cornelius – and their relationships with humankind. The franchise spawned from Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel La Planète des singes, and spans five original-series films, a theatrical remake, two television series, and a new prequel-re-boot hitting theaters August 5.
The Installment: Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971)
The Story: We begin in the (then) present day, with a spacecraft having crashed into the ocean. The military scrambles to recover it, dragging the ship onto the beach. Three astronauts emerge from the craft. Then they remove their helmets revealing that… OMG, they’re apes! Bet you didn’t see that coming! We learn that Zira and Cornelius, along with the brilliant ape scientist Dr. Milo (Rebel Without a Cause‘s Sal Mineo), managed to escape into space just before the entire planet was destroyed by the super-humans’ nuke. Seems like Zira and Cornelius should’ve informed Taylor that Milo had found, and was restoring, his spaceship, but I guess Milo was keeping it a secret. Oh well, Milo is killed almost immediately by an irate gorilla being kept in the cage next to the chimps at the zoo — serves him right. Anyway, Zira and Cornelius naturally become a media sensation and everybody loves them. Everybody except the President’s Science Advisor, Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden). He wants Zira and Cornelius – and the baby in Zira’s belly – killed, in the hopes that doing so will alter Earth’s future more favorably for humans. Two zoologists, Stephanie Branton (Natalie Trundy) and Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman), are Zira and Cornelius’ only hope for escape.
Escape is the Star Trek IV of the Apes series (or rather, Star Trek IV was the Escape of the Star Trek series). Not just because things are brought to present day America, but the previously mature and serious tone is put aside for some family-film silliness. Here is where we enter a matter of taste. As with ST4, you will either find the goofy change of pace fun and refreshing, or you’ll find it all agonizingly dorky. I found it rather dorky. Good or bad though, there is an undeniable upside here: the lightweight manner of the early portions of the film lulls you into a cruel false sense of security before Escape gut-punches you with the most shockingly depressing ending yet — the cold-blooded murder of Zira, Cornelius, and their newborn baby, Milo (named after the late gorilla-throttled Dr. Milo).
Technically, the ending to Beneath was bleaker. But we never really cared about Nova, and certainly not Brent. And there is something twistedly satisfying about Taylor going out in such a blaze of misanthropic glory; it’s kinda badass actually. Point being, even though the entire planet gets fried, it isn’t sad. Zira and Cornelius getting killed is sad. It is also extremely disturbing. Particularly the part where Dr. Hasslein shoots baby Milo. That’s right. He shoots a fucking baby chimp. Point blank, from mere feet away. With a gun. Blam. He shoots an adorable newborn chimp wrapped in a blankie. You don’t see that one coming. Though the most disturbing part of the sequence may be the horrifying noises Cornelius makes as he’s dying. Surely this ending emotionally scarred an entire generation of nerdy children. It is a miserable, devastating ending to such a silly-ass film. The Apes franchise just keeps the great endings coming.
Of course, the awfulness of baby Milo getting the Sonny Corleone treatment sets us up for a great twist too — one of those twists that seems embarrassingly obvious after its dropped on you. The twist being that the baby chimp that got a face full of lead wasn’t actually Zira and Cornelius’ baby, but in fact the baby of a regular ol’ chimp that lives in the circus run by Señor Armando (a charmingly over-the-top Ricardo Montalbán). This revelation makes the moment when a dying Zira dumps the dead baby into the ocean make a lot more sense (destroying evidence). The film’s final moment is the real baby Milo sitting in a cage and saying his first word: “Mama.” Dun dun dunnnn!
Overall, Escape is a smart move story-wise in the franchise. Though I wish we had seen more ape society inner-workings in Beneath, I don’t think there was much juice left in 3978 AD. Not without Taylor involved. Brent just didn’t work, and I barely tolerated the idea that a second 20th-century ship crashed on the planet, so there’s no way I could have accepted a third ship storyline introducing more humans. And a movie that focused entirely on the apes, while potentially interesting, would have lost the most basic conflict of the series — intelligent apes vs intelligent humans. Plus, you know, Earth got nuked. Bringing things back to the present was the perfect move, for several reasons. On just a bean-counting level it was surely a great relief to the budget. Beneath‘s FX were a sad shadow of the first film. Escape only had to deal with Zira and Cornelius for its bulk. Storywise, moving to present day allowed the franchise to once again go through the popular beats of the first film, but now with the fun twist that its happening to the apes instead of Taylor to keep it fresh. This new setting also serves as a bit of a reboot without actually feeling like a reboot. There is a bit of retconning done to the backstory that sharply separates the reality of the final three films from the first two. Had such a thing been done to the franchise while still in the year 3978 it would have been obnoxious (as such things always are). Here is feels more acceptable.
Eric Braeden is excellent as Hasslein. A great antagonist and Dr. Zaius counterpart, who, like Zaius, is made all the more interesting by the reasonable nature of his motivations — in his mind he is saving the human race from becoming cow-eyed Novas. The cool and calculated demeanor he has at all times makes him extra intriguing as a villain; Braeden seems to be playing the character as a handsomer Henry Kissinger.
I am of mixed feelings about the happy-go-lucky first half of the film. There are some cute bits, like Zira masterfully acing the simple intelligence test she’s given before the apes have revealed they can talk, or Cornelius giving a surly “No” in response to a tailor asking if he can measure Cornelius’ inseam. And the levity is somewhat refreshing. But…
What Doesn’t Work:
The levity can be a bit much at times. The movie has a Pretty Woman-style shopping montage for godsake. And the fish out of water gags are relentless, and often of Crocodile Dundee 2 quality. The problem is most acute when it concerns Zira, whose character is sadly made rather annoying in this film. I get that they wanted to draw parallels with her experience and Taylor’s in Apes, but doing so has the bad side-effect of making her seem kind of stupid when she is repeatedly not taking the gravity and dangers of their situation seriously — blurting things out and mouthing off to the humans as though she were an old man who just no longer gives a shit about decorum. She doesn’t feel like Zira from Apes and Beneath. She is now excessively precious, constantly making cutesy faces. (Instead of being funny or cute, I found it sorta creepy that rather than explaining to Zira what wine is, they just call it “grape juice plus.” Though possibly that’s just cause we’re living in a post “Jesus juice” world.) And when not being cutesy, Zira is delivering lines and zingers that seem written for some sassy Wanda Sykes-esque character.
Bottom line though is the fact that while the silliness is sorta fun, I would have liked to see more of the situations taken seriously. All our scenes involving the government – from the President to the special committee formed to discuss the apes – feel extremely inauthentic. I think that Escape could have kept all the humor and the light tone and still treated things legitimately.
It is in this film that we finally get an explanation of how apes evolved so quickly in the 2000 years between the present day and the events of the first film. The retconning completely shits on the reality we were presented in Apes, in which the apes don’t know exactly where they came from, and even if that information did exist, Cornelius most certainly wouldn’t have had access to the secret scrolls from which he learned their history (he was being tried for treason, after all). But whatever, its nice to get some explanation as to how apes evolved so quickly. Unfortunately the backstory is pretty lame. An animal plague destroyed all dogs and cats, forcing humans to keep apes as pets, which in turn saw apes evolve at an accelerated rate from their constant proximity to humans. Really? That’s the best you got? Kinda seems like something a little kid would make up. For one thing, if dogs and cats all suddenly died I don’t think chimps are exactly next on the pet totem pole. And what about the gorillas and orangutans? People had pet gorillas farting around in their apartments? This explanation actually manages to seem more far fetched than the idea that apes just rapidly evolved speech on their own in only 2000 years.
Milo’s death is comically stupid. I get that they needed an ape who fixed and flew Taylor’s ship, as we know Zira and Cornelius were neither qualified to do so, nor, you know, doing that in the previous two films. I also get that Milo was unnecessary once the apes got to the present. But having a gorilla (an awesomely terrible looking gorilla at that) choke him to death through the bars of their cage? Did a little kid think of that one too? How boring. Missed opportunity for something relevant to the overall story. If that’s how transparently unimportant Milo was going to be, they might as well have just had him die in the crash.
Dorkiest Political Moment: Zira with a women’s rights group, proclaiming: “A marriage bed is made for two. But every damn morning, it’s the woman who has to make it. We have heads as well as hands. I call upon men to let us use them.”
Zoological Faux Pas: Again with the gorilla bashing. The Gorilla Rights people need to get on this shit. The Apes franchise is a lie-filled chimp propaganda machine!
Worst Civilized Ape Moment: Why do the apes eat oranges with a knife and fork? It’s an orange!
Most Depressing Line: Cornelius: “If we are caught, we will almost certainly be killed. Please give us the opportunity… to kill ourselves?”
Awkward Inter-Species Moment: Dr. Hasslein getting a pregnant Zira drunk on wine.
Fucked Up Ending: Dr. Hasslein has chased Zira, Cornelius and the baby onto a ship. He shoots Zira in the back, then unloads on the baby. Cornelius shoots and kills Hasslein, but is then killed himself by a sniper. Zira chucks the baby corpse into the water, then crawls to die next to Cornelius.
Should There Have Been a Sequel: Hell yeah!
Up Next: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes