Monday, June 27, 2011
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
I’ve been claiming for years that Escape from the Planet of the Apes was the last PotA movie I saw as a kid, but now that I’ve “re-watched” it, I’m not so sure it was. I had a vivid memory of Zira and Cornelius’ talking to human scientists through bars of a cage and there’s plenty of that in the movie, but man, I had zero recollection of the actual plot or tone of the film. Maybe I caught it on TV as a child and only saw part of it. More likely, I’m probably confusing it with the fourth film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. I didn’t think I’d seen Conquest, but I just watched the trailer for it and it has that sense of seriousness and rising dread that I thought I remembered from Escape. And since Roddy McDowell also plays the main character in Conquest, maybe it’s that character that I’m remembering talking to the scientists and Zira wasn’t actually there. I’ll have to wait until next week to find out.
Part of the problem is that I’ve read summaries for all five films, so my childhood memories are mixing in weird ways with what I think I know of the stories. For example, I was very surprised at how Zira and Cornelius escaped the end of the world in Beneath. I remembered that their coming back in time to the 1970s was an accident, but it wasn’t actually as unplanned as I’d thought. I knew that they narrowly escaped the destruction of the planet and were thrown back in time, but it was my cynicism about the studios’ desire to keep the franchise going that led me to believe the explanation would be sloppy and nonsensical. I’d come up with the image of a shockwave from the planet’s destruction that created a timewarp that somehow affected only the popular chimpanzee couple. That’s ridiculous, but no less so than other explanations I’ve seen for getting out of cliffhangers.
All that’s to say that Escape is a much, much better film than I remembered or expected. It opens with a shot of the beach that’s very reminiscent of the end of Planet of the Apes or the beginning of Beneath the Planet of the Apes until a couple of helicopters cross the sky and you realize that you’re not in that world anymore.
The helicopters are investigating a spacecraft that’s splashed down in the Pacific Ocean near the California shore. It’s immediately recognizable as the same type that both Taylor and Brent used, but when the military arrives to open the capsule, three chimpanzees emerge: Zira, Cornelius (played again by Roddy McDowell, who sat out Beneath), and a new character, Dr. Milo. It’s not until that point that the title of the movie appropriately appears, accompanied by some kicky, groovy music like you’d expect from a Flint movie or a Peter Sellers comedy.
That’s the first clue that Escape is going in a different direction from the first two films. Not a completely different direction, as we’ll see, but the first half of the film is much lighter in tone as the humans try to figure out what to make of these talking primates. There’s a Star Trek IV-ness in its dropping familiar sci-fi characters into a contemporary setting and just admitting that that’s a goofy premise that the movie wants to have fun with for a while. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Once the apes are taken into custody (and we get to see a very young M Emmet Walsh playing a military aide), we learn that Dr. Milo is the one responsible for the apes’ trip through time. During the events of the first two movies, Milo had not only discovered the location of Taylor’s sunken spaceship, but had successfully raised it to the surface and repaired it. When the gorillas went to war on the Forbidden Zone, Milo knew that no good would come of it and arranged to be off-planet with his friends Zira and Cornelius during the invasion. No one attempts to explain the wormhole that sent the ship back through time (was it a result of the Earth’s destruction or just a random event?) and that’s fine. There’s no need to over-think it.
There is a bit of a speed bump in the story’s logic though when the movie insists on supporting Beneath’s assertion that people in the ‘70s would be aware that something went wrong with Taylor’s mission. And not only his, but Brent’s too. I’ve already talked about why that’s impossible, so I won’t harp on it, but it’s still irritating.
The apes are first taken to the LA Zoo and – at Milo’s recommendation – try not to let anyone know that they can talk. They’re studied by a pair of scientists named Lewis Dixon and Stephanie Branton and are able to keep quiet for a while. But even though Dixon and Branton are kind to them, Zira becomes impatient at the undignified experiments she’s asked to perform and voices her objection.
I haven’t said enough about Kim Hunter’s portrayal of Zira in all three of these movies. I doubt I was the only kid who fell in love with that ape. Zira’s written as outspoken and uppity, but Hunter also gives her humor and grace and you can’t help but cheer for her. Roddy McDowell’s Cornelius is just as likable and I enjoy both characters even more together than I would if they were by themselves. My fondness for Zira increases because Cornelius likes her so much. And vice versa.
Unfortunately, having fulfilled his function in getting our heroes to the ‘70s, Dr. Milo is killed when he gets too close to a primitive gorilla at the zoo. That leaves Zira and Cornelius to face the humans alone, but there doesn’t seem to be a problem at first. They have to appear before a Presidential committee that’s formed to learn about them, but they do well and win over the news media that’s covering the event. As a result, they become national celebrities and get to have fun montages in which they shop for mod clothes, move into a fancy hotel, and comment on human society.
Lurking around during all of this is the President’s Science Advisor Dr. Otto Hasslein, played by Eric Braeden. Braeden is of course famous for playing the sinister Victor Newman on The Young and the Restless, so as soon as I recognized him I immediately suspected him of evil motives. Realizing that wasn’t quite fair – this being a completely different character and all – I gave him the benefit of the doubt. But I wasn’t at all surprised to have my early suspicions confirmed that Dr. Hasslein wasn’t to be trusted.
There are some holes in Zira and Cornelius’ story of where they came from and Hasslein wants to poke around in them. It’s a fair suspicion because the chimps haven’t been entirely honest with the humans. They’ve even lied and said they didn’t know Taylor because they knew that would lead to questions about Taylor’s treatment and eventual death. Revealing how Taylor died would also lead to disclosure about the Earth’s destruction and the apes aren’t sure how the humans would respond to that.
They’re right to be careful. One night when Cornelius isn’t around, Hasslein gets Zira drunk and she spills the whole story. Hasslein freaks out; mostly because Zira is pregnant (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome wasn’t identified and named until two years after Escape came out, so we can maybe cut Hasslein some slack for not being on the cutting edge of that research). Hasslein fears that Zira’s baby will mate with primitive apes to create the race of intelligent primates that will eventually take over the world and cause its destruction. He recommends to the Presidential Commission that Zira’s child be aborted and that Zira and Cornelius be spayed and neutered.
The movie gets a lot darker from here on, but it’s very centered on Zira and Cornelius’ plight and doesn’t make any new social commentary like the two previous films did. Lots of comparisons are made about animal experimentation in the ‘70s and during the apes’ time, but there’s no judgment on it. Everyone – human and ape alike – accepts it as a reasonable tool in the pursuit of knowledge. There’s not even a theme about xenophobia. Zira and Cornelius are welcomed and encouraged to stay and live out their lives. Hasslein’s plan is horrific and something to be avoided, but it doesn’t involve actually killing the heroes.
The only unique social observation I pulled from the movie was a clarification of something the apes kept saying in the first two films: “ape does not kill ape.” I stupidly missed the significance of that until Escape smacked me over the head with it and pointed out that this is a crucial difference between apes and humans. Apes don’t kill their own kind. Humans – as Taylor so frequently pointed out – do. This goes back to my observation during Beneath that the apes created their culture as a direct response to humans’; trying to improve on it and create a utopian society. Their success was limited, but they had at least prevented war within their own species. Sometimes I just need things spelled out for me.
While being questioned by the military, Cornelius reveals the history of the apes’ rise to power. He tells about a plague that killed off the world’s cats and dogs and how humans – desperate for new pets – began to bring primates into their homes. Because the apes were so much smarter and dexterous than the previous pets, humans began using them as servants too. Slaves, really. And this continued until the apes evolved and one of them said, “No.” From that point, the revolution was on.
There are some problems with this story. Chiefly, it’s unclear how Cornelius could possibly know it. Humanity’s one-time dominance over the apes was a strictly guarded secret of orangutan leadership in the first two films. There are a couple of possible explanations though. First of all, During Planet of the Apes, Dr. Zaius holds a post in his office over Cornelius’ head if Cornelius and Zira get back in line with the orangutans. I don’t recall if that’s followed up on in Beneath, but it’s possible that Cornelius did go to work for/with Zaius and had access to some secrets. I can’t really see Zaius’ voluntarily sharing that information with Cornelius, but the chimp could have discovered it or sought it out on his own.
That doesn’t solve the whole problem though, because Cornelius also tells the humans that the anniversary of the first ape’s speaking is a major celebration in ape culture. That simply can’t be true. Cornelius has to be lying.
There could be a couple of reasons for him to lie. Maybe he has no clue how apes took over from men, but knows that the humans won’t be satisfied with that answer, so he makes one up. Or maybe he really does know some of the story, but embellishes it to include an annual celebration. The first explanation seems more likely. I can understand why he’d make up the whole story, but I have a hard time figuring out why adding details like an anniversary would benefit him.
I’m a little reluctant to let the whole “No” story go, but that’s just because I like it. Even though it contradicts the history of the apes’ rise in the next two films, there’s an easy reconciliation for that inconsistency. Hasslein explains it earlier in the film when he’s describing the concept of time travel to the President. He illustrates it as a multi-lane highway with each lane going to a different future. If you stay in your lane, you’re destined towards a particular outcome, but you can change that by changing lanes. Hasslein’s goal is to change humanity’s lane by aborting Zira’s child, but what he may not realize is that the world has already switched lanes simply by Zira and Cornelius’ coming back to the past. The future that Cornelius described isn’t unchangeable.
What’s sad is that Hasslein should know this. He should be working with Zira and Cornelius to set up a situation in which apes and humans live in equality. But he gives into fear instead.
I like all that, but it still doesn’t explain Cornelius’ comment about the No Anniversary. The only explanation that makes sense is that Cornelius is making it all up. I’ll miss the alternative timelimes theory, but it’s much simpler for this story to see time as a self-correcting phenomenon in which Zira and Cornelius were always the catalyst for the apes’ uprising.
With the help of Drs. Dixon and Branton, Zira and Cornelius eventually escape military custody, but a man is killed accidentally in the process, upping the tension on both sides of the chase. Dixon takes the apes to a friend of his, Señor Armando (Ricardo Montalban), who runs a traveling circus that’s currently performing near LA. Zira gives birth there (they name the baby Milo after their deceased friend) and Armando plans to take the primate family with him when he finishes in California and moves the show to its winter headquarters in Florida. There, the apes will be able to escape into the Everglades and start their own secret colony.
It’s a good plan, but it’s complicated when Hasslein figures out that he should be searching small zoos and circuses that might conceal the apes. Dixon learns about Hasslein’s idea and lets Cornelius know of a shipyard where he, Zira, and Milo can lie low for a week until the search moves on. After that, they can rejoin Armando for the trip east.
This too is a good plan, but Zira mucks it up by dropping her carpet bag along the way. She brought it from the future and has been carrying it the entire movie, so when someone finds it, they know to call the police. That leads Hasslein to the general area of the shipyard where he spots Cornelius’ returning to a ship after a food run. There’s a dramatic chase around the ship, a shootout (Dixon had supplied Cornelius with a gun), and – sadly – no survivors. Hasslein’s firing his pistol into the blanket covering the baby chimp is especially appalling, but effective. I don’t excuse any part of Hasslein’s actions, but he’s an effective villain because he truly believes he’s doing the right thing for humanity. In his mind, he’s the hero.
Fortunately, the movie doesn’t end there. Back at the circus, Armando talks to the baby of one of his own chimps, revealing that this child is actually Milo. Zira switched her child with that of the other chimpanzee. The film fades to black as Baby Milo calls for his mama with an all too human voice.
It’s a disturbing moment, realizing what Zira did. She switched her child with a primitive one, knowing that she was going into danger and that the baby with her might not survive. Though the movie keeps this as a surprise until the end, it actually does show the moment leading up to the switch. Zira asks Armando if she can say goodbye to the other chimp family and as she sits alone with the animals in their cage, she exchanges meaningful looks with the other mother. The film doesn’t spell out what’s being communicated or how much the primitive mother understands, but there’s a way of reading it in which the primitive chimp gives her baby freely to Zira. Does she somehow understand that Milo’s survival is important to the future of all apekind? I don’t know how that would be possible, but I much prefer it to the alternative that Zira simply, selfishly stole the other child.
Then again, the primitive mom would know that Milo’s not her son and – if he’d been forced on her against her will – likely wouldn’t want anything to do with him. Is it telling that Milo’s not housed with any other apes when Armando talks to him at the end of the movie? Maybe he has been rejected. Unfortunately, the explanation that makes the most sense is that Zira stole the primitive baby; probably hoping to return him, but still…she obviously knew there was a chance of tragedy and wanted to make sure her child was safe. I’m actually not judging her. It makes me wonder what I would do in a similar situation. Would I sacrifice someone else’s child to save my own? It’s a horrible choice to have to make and I like that the film doesn’t offer a judgment about it. It just throws it out there and makes me wrestle with it.
Maybe Conquest will reveal more.