Escape from the Planet of the Apes - Sci-Fi Classic Film Review
The "escape" happens before the movie even begins, really
I had some harsh words last week for Paul Dehn, the writer of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and I stand by each and every one of them. However, no matter how much I dislike the script for that film, no writer deserves the punishment poor Dehn received immediately after its release, being given a demand by the studio to write another sequel, one that picks up after the entire world is destroyed. So while I do still have a handful of quibbles with Escape from the Planet of the Apes, I start from a stance of total respect that he found a way to move the series forward rather than just quitting on the spot.
It also helps Dehn's case that his script for Escape from the Planet of the Apes is much tighter and less driven by narrative convenience. This is, in terms of story, the truest sequel to Planet of the Apes, in that it reverses the dynamic of the first film without being unnecessarily cute about it. It doesn't ask viewers to accept too many weird happenings, only that the time travel gimmick of the first two films could be reversed. It also pays tribute to some aspects of Pierre Boulle's original novel that were neglected in the previous films, namely the backstory as to how, exactly, apes overcame man.
As I said, though, I do have a few small quibbles, which are just a step or two above nitpicks. For one, I don't understand how Cornelius knows all this backstory about the future, given that he only just learned the truth in what is, canonically, just a few days earlier from his perspective, nor does it make sense that the ancient texts that Zaius and his ilk use to control the narrative would actually contain stories about how apes overcame their human masters, given that it would require acknowledging the existence of human masters at some point in their history.
Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter make this movie work
I'm also not fond of the characterization of the main antagonist, Dr. Hasslein. He's given a clear and understandable motive that makes perfect sense, and he's driven enough by his convictions to commit infanticide in the name of his ideals. He has one fantastic monologue in which he decries humanity's short-sightedness in dealing with the long-term problems of the world like nuclear war and overpopulation, and that informs his well-founded fear that, by letting Zira and Cornelius have a baby, the human race is signing its own death warrant. Unfortunately, this excellent motivation is put into a cartoonishly obvious villain with a faint British accent and menacing eyes who even smiles in victory when the government committee agrees to terminate Zira's pregnancy, gloating at the kinder, gentler Dr. Lewis.
There's also a late inclusion of a new and important character in the third act: the circus owner Armando. I love Armando (as played by the always entertaining Ricardo Mantalbán), but his entrance into the story feels like a deus ex machina, providing a convenient way out of the thorny place our heroes find themselves in. Had Armando been introduced earlier, even incidentally, this wouldn't be a problem, and it wouldn't require throwing in a bunch of painfully obvious exposition to get the audience up to speed as to who he is and why he's important.
Dr. Hasslein could have been a great villain if he'd been a bit less obviously evil
Those quibbles aside, though, this is an enormous improvement over the previous film. Not only is the writing better, but so is the acting, with Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowell finally getting a chance to wallow in the spotlight as the film's protagonists, Cornelius and Zira, who are sidelined for nearly the entirety of Beneath the Planet of the Apes (Cornelius isn't even played by McDowell in that film). Kim Hunter, in particular, is fantastic as the outspoken feminist scientist who just can't bring herself to lie or conceal the truth, even when it puts her family at risk, holding to the noble principle that truth should always win out.
The tone is also well-done, starting out fairly light-hearted with a few fun montages of the pair trying to fit in with human society and slowly ratcheting up the tension towards a devastating finale, which, unlike in the last film, contains just a tiny ray of hope before the credits role. I also like the way it portrays the complexity of human society, showing how the simplistic class divisions of the apes don't translate perfectly to humanity, where nobody--not even the president--wields the kind of power that Dr. Zaius yielded against Taylor.
You can't not love Mandalbán
The character development for Cornelius is equally interesting, in that he goes from being a consummate pacifist to someone who kills--twice--out of rage. Part of me is genuinely torn over the scene where he accidentally kills the orderly, but it is a necessary turning point, not just for the plot to happen but also for Cornelius' tragic character arc. The film could have gone an easier route and made the orderly get killed off-screen by the machinations of Dr. Hasslein, but that would have cheapened Hasslein's already stereotypical character and made Cornelius' ultimate death a little less deserved. Ultimately, Cornelius must face the same realization that Taylor once faced, that despite his high ideals, he (and, by proxy, his kind) is just as capable of resorting to violence as anyone else.
Ultimately, then, Escape from the Planet of the Apes is an example of how to do sequels correctly. It uses the same thematic framework, but recontextualizes its themes in a novel and interesting way. It shows us familiar characters in somewhat familiar situations, but it doesn't waste the audience's time by copying them exactly or including a bunch of winks and nods that serve no narrative purpose. While I wouldn't call it a perfect film and while it doesn't have the same novelty as the original Planet of the Apes, it is a classic in its own right that treats both the franchise and the audience with respect.
-e. magill 10/28/2021
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: