March 17, 2013

"Ape-stronauts!" I Never Want To ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES

"Because I loathe bananas."
Okay, I get it now.

The first Apes movie is a legitimately great movie, while the second one tries for big sci-fi ideas and fails spectacularly.  The third one knows exactly where its bread is buttered.  What do I mean?  Here we open on the familiar spacecraft floating in the Pacific ocean, but now we've got a helicopter full of modern day humans flying overhead.  The army shows up and drags the the crashed ship onto the shore and opens up the hatch.  Three astronauts emerge and remove their helmets only to reveal...they're apes!  Apes in spacesuits!  Ape-stronauts!

I don't think I've been won over by a movie so quickly.

Long story short: Cornelius, Zira and newcomer Dr. Milo managed to salvage Taylor's spaceship, figure out the controls and blast off just in time to see the Earth destroyed.  The ship is somehow catapulted backward in time to 1971, leaving our favorite apes to find their way in late 20th century Los Angeles.  So basically, it's the Star Trek IV of Apes movies.

Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter are back and they are both spectacular.  There's obviously a lot of humor to be mined from intelligent, talking apes from the future becoming celebrities in 1970s LA, doubly so when viewing it 40 years later.  (The fashion choices alone are pretty amazing.)  The biggest fault of Beneath The Planet Of The Apes was Cornelius and Zira's abrupt disappearance halfway through the movie, so you've gotta give them credit for turning that weakness to their advantage in the third installment.  And where Beneath was overwhelmingly dour, this movie has a playful tone that really plays into turning the tables and making the apes the fish out of water.  I'm sure a big part of that story choice was driven by budgetary concerns; it's certainly a lot cheaper to shoot two apes (Milo is accidentally killed early on) in a modern setting than to build elaborate sets and put dozens of actors and extras in complex simian makeup.

McDowell and Hunter are clearly having a blast reprising their roles.  Writer Paul Dehn seems to realize who the stars of its franchise really are and they are both given great material to play.  Again, there's plenty of comedy here and both Zira and Cornelius get in some sharp zingers as they explore this new world.  But the story eventually takes a darker tone.  The U.S. government, spearheaded by the President's chief science advisor Dr. Otto Hasslein, is very interested in exactly where the apes came from, why they traveled back in time, and how their species eventually came to dominate man.  There are public hearings that eventually give way to secret interrogations involving truth serum.  When Zira is revealed to be pregnant, Dr. Hasslein is convinced that the offspring of these two apes will eventually beget a race of apes that will spell humanity's downfall.  He believes that they must be killed for the good of mankind, and even though there's no doubt that Hasslein's in the wrong, I appreciated that the script actually gives him somewhat of a nuanced position.  He gives a great speech about how the human race is prone to procrastination when it comes to solving large scale problems like pollution and overpopulation.  Eric Braeden's performance stops short of turning Hasslein into a mustache-twirling villain and it's clear that he truly believes he's doing the right and necessary thing, even if Zira and Cornelius personally have only the best of intentions towards man.

Eventually Zira and Cornelius escape from the military base where they're being held, thanks in part to the efforts of the animal psychologists who first took care of them upon their arrival in the past.  He takes them to a friend's circus to hide out.  The circusmaster?  Ricardo Motherfucking Montalban!

It's like this movie was made for me.

The movie's finale gets super dark.  (Spoilers follow)  Dr. Hasslein tracks Cornelius, Zira and their baby Milo to an abandoned freighter ship and the Doctor eventually shoots both Zira and the baby.  Cornelius thusly shoots Hasslein dead in front of a squad of police officers, who, in turn, shoot Cornelius.  His lifeless body topples down from the top of the ship to the deck below and the ailing Zira dumps the baby's body in the water and crawls over to die next to her husband.  And as the audience is once again left wondering how they plan to keep this franchise going, we cut back to Ricardo Montalban's circus, only to see that Zira actually swapped babies with one of the circus apes.  Baby Milo (an actual ape) clutches the bars of his cage and as the picture fades to black, we hear him crying out, "Mama!  Mama!  MAAAAMAAAA!"  Talk about a killer ending!

While the first two Apes movies made me curious to see where the story would go, this one left me damn near RABID for the next installment.  I suspect that the last two movies will take place primarily in the modern day, but at the same time this franchise has a willingness to completely rewrite its own history whenever it suits it.  For example, during his interrogation Cornelius tells the story of how the apes initially came to overtake humanity.  He speaks of a plague that wiped out dogs and cats, thus causing humans to adopt apes as pets.  Eventually the apes became smart enough to carry out complicated yet menial tasks like cooking and cleaning, until the apes eventually came to grasp the concept of slavery.  They finally rose up against their masters, and an ape named Aldo spoke the first word.  He said, "No."

While I appreciate the way it would come to be echoed by Andy Serkis's Caesar in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, it also runs completely contrary to the history established in the first Apes movie.  There we saw Cornelius's archeological dig, where he had uncovered evidence of the long gone human civilization.  However they were convinced it must have been some ancient apes, because the idea of intelligent, vocal humans seemed an impossibility.  Now he's talking about every ape celebrating the day that Aldo first spoke his refusal against man.  This isn't so much retconning as it is just changing the rules whenever it's convenient.  In Beneath it seemed annoying and lazy, but now that it's become a systemic feature of the franchise it's actually morphed into a rather charming attribute.  Hey, maybe it means they'll find a way to bring Cornelius and Zira back from the dead.  Who knows?

While the first Planet Of The Apes is definitely the most impressive movie of the franchise so far, Escape is probably my favorite and I suspect that it will probably end up being watched in heavier rotation in our house when all is said and done.

Then again, I've got two more chapters to go and my hopes have never been higher.

Title: Escape From The Planet Of The Apes
Director: Don Taylor
Starring: Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter, Bradford Dillman, Eric Braeden
Year Of Release: 1971
Viewing Method: Digital Copy (TV)

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