Monday 11 May 2015

Escape From The Planet Of The Apes

The Great [esc]Ape

Escape From The Planet Of The Apes
USA 1971
Directed by Don Taylor
20TH Century Fox
Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Yeah, there’s an ending spoiler on this one too. Sorry. 

So the first sequel to the original film, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (reviewed by me here), was a guaranteed franchise ender... or so the film makers thought. What with them blowing up the entire world at the climax and all. What they hadn’t banked on, I guess, was that (terrible or not) the second film was a roaring success with the general public and a sequel was required. So how do you go about fixing that?

Well, quite creatively, as it happens.

Escape From The Planet Of The Apes is, for my money, the very best of the original sequels (just slightly better than then next movie in the series, which is also quite excellent). There was no way that the storyline could be continued any further forward in the future so the writers took the other direction and sent three apes, Cornelius, Zira and a character called Milo, back in time. This was Roddy McDowell’s second time playing Cornelius after having to stand out of the last film due to directing commitments (having somebody else copying his delivery in the role) and Kim Hunter’s third and final performance as Zira.

The film opens strongly with a brilliant sequence that would have been a whole lot stronger if people didn’t know this was supposed to be a Planet Of The Apes movie but... how do you get an audience to go to a movie without telling them what it is? So the really nice thing about the opening is that it starts off with a shot of a beach not dissimilar to the one on which Charlton Heston has his big, final moment in the original movie. It keys into the expectations of the paying customers that they are watching a scene about to unfold in Earth’s far future... like the previous two movies. Then the film nicely crashes that expectation when we realise we’ve got the noisy uproar of a helicopter on the soundtrack before seeing it come out from behind a cliff. We are in contemporary times, it seems. Well not really because the film was released in 1971 and I believe the time frame in which the film is set is two years later so, to offer up a cliche, we are in the 'near future'.

A space ship which we all recognise from the first two films is floating in the sea near the beach and the military have recovery operations well in hand... although I still don’t see how the insides of the craft as seen in the first film can even be possible, bearing in mind that the scale of the outside of the ship looks incredibly small in comparison and certainly not enough for one, let alone three passengers. As the astronauts, in full spacesuits, emerge from the capsule they are lined up on the beach and a military emissary from the US government offers his hand in friendship. It’s then that all the humans on the beach find out, by way of a sting, what we in the audience presumably knew all along... bearing in mind the title of the movie. The three apes, Cornelius, Zira and Milo, are revealed inside the space suits and Jerry Goldsmith’s awesome main title music kicks in as we see the apes escorted by the military as the credits play out.

It’s a bold move for the writing team as they try and do a reversal of the 'fish out of water' aspect of the original apes film, this time with the apes being treated as dumb and locked up... until they finally reveal their powers of speech and make obvious their already apparent intellect. It does so, however, with a lot of humour which is undercut by a quiet sense of menace as the human “bad guy” of the story, Dr. Hasslein, played by Eric Braeden (a character which is mentioned by both sets of humans in the previous two movies) tries to find out the facts about the apes' future civilisation that they are keeping to themselves while the 'good' Doctors Dixon and Brantan, played by Bradford Dillman and Natalie Trundy, try to make sure the apes are protected and not exploited, or worse, at the hands of contemporary, human society. Interestingly, like McDowell, Natalie Trundy was in four of the five original apes movies (all the sequels) but she played both apes and humans in different movies.

The film makes a lot of the natural comedy hijinks which ensue when, for example, the apes dress themselves in front of the unknowing humans and, when being presented with three oranges, set the table with plates and use knives and forks. Other comedy moments come from Zira outwitting all the ‘pet psychiatrist’s’ intelligence tests in a few minutes, leading into her solving a way to reach the banana which is being dangled for her as a reward. When she just sits on the steps and ignores the food offered, she becomes annoyed by her captors’ lack of ability to understand why she is leaving the morsel and exasperatingly shouts at them... “Because I loathe bananas!” The effect of the apes first words in the presence of humans is priceless and a nice comical counterpoint to Heston’s own speech revelation, “Take your hands off me you damn, dirty ape!” of the first movie.

The film plays the comedy route for quite a while with the apes becoming celebrity figures and using their reactions to the segments of human society they are exposed to in a critical, satirical  and often truthful way... such as Cornelius’ shock at the exploited barbarism of a boxing match or Zira’s strong, guest speech on the liberation of women. There’s nothing particularly innovative in the movie but it is immensely entertaining and a lot frothier than any of the other entries in the series. That being said, when Dr. Hasslein gets the now pregnant Zira drunk on “grapejuice plus” aka champagne, he begins to uncover the truth about life in the future and aims to get more information.

Its then that the film’s dark heart comes into play and the last act of the movie is much bleaker and distressing in tone. Under sodium pentathol, Zira spills all the beans about dissecting humans, using them for target practice and the war which destroys the planet... which has the government running scared. Meanwhile, the back story that Cornelius gives of apekind’s rise to humanity is, frankly preposterous in terms of continuity of the series. In the first film, set a very short time after the previous and, again, hardly any time at all in terms of ape chronology, from this installment, it’s made clear that the apes mostly know nothing at all of their evolution from man. What limited knowledge there is in that direction is kept secret and repressed by such officials as Dr. Zaius. So when Cornelius starts telling the story of the day the talking ape Aldo stood up to his human masters and said “No”... it’s a great story. However, when he says te day is celebrated by all ape kind it makes no sense because, frankly, the apes of the future depicted in the first and second installments have absolutely no idea that mankind was ever a thinking, intelligent animal.

However, the consequences of Zira’s revelations about ape/human interaction in her time and the ultimate destruction of Earth is what the last part of the film are about. It’s ordered that Zira’s pregnancy is to be officially terminated by the government and the apes sterilised. Meanwhile, Cornelius accidentally kills one of their captors and so the manhunt... err... ape hunt begins. Doctors Dixon and Brantan hide Cornelius, Zira and their new young son named after the doctor who landed with them (and who didn’t survive to this point in the film) in the circus with their friend Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan! Sorry, I meant their friend Armando, played by Ricardo Montalban. However, it’s not long before our family of three have to move out again, to an abandoned ship in a disused harbour.

And then the bleakness engulfs the movie with a grim finale full of death which is actually extraordinarily downbeat. It’s another great ending but it’s the post finale scene back at the circus with Armando which really hits home. I’m pretty sure I saw this in a cinema as a double bill with the next film in the series at some point in my childhood and the end was certainly one which stays with you. Armando and the circus are preparing to move on to the next location and we see the young ape who was the offspring of another ape in the circus... but it’s wearing the amulet that Armando gave Zira and Cornelius’ son. We realise that Zira pulled a switch with the child, before leaving the circus, leaving Armando with the care of her offspring This is made more implicit as the ape starts yelling “Mama. Mama. Mama” over again as the film finishes. The delivery of it and the way it’s treated in the sound design, even when backed up with a crude visual loop of a real young chimpanzee mouthing the line, is quite chilling and the writers and producers were obviously not thinking they were going to make the same mistake as last time... leaving a pretty big sequel thread hanging for the scriptwriters to tug on next time around.

The film is entertaining but, for the most part, not very innovative in either its content or in terms of the 'work a day' practical nature of the competent but not overly creative cinematography. It zooms along though and it also has what is a classic and extremely fun Jerry Goldsmith score. The composer skillfully does his thing and delivers a score which is completely different to what he was doing in the first movie but, at the same time, keeping the orchestration within the same basic arena as the musical syntax he developed for that first outing and which was, it could be argued, supported stylistically, somewhat, by Leonard Rosenman’s score for the second. It also has some nice sequences where the composer pitches a very strong, jaunty melody line which is not unlike something he might have composed for the Flint movies and throws in kettle drums and sitars all playing together in the mix. It’s quite a phenomenal set of cues. My one criticism of this particular movie score... and it’s very rare that I would ever criticise the great Jerry... is that there seems to be room for a lot more in the movie. Goldsmith was a master of working out where music should and shouldn’t go and this score has around a half an hour of music for the whole 98 minute movie... which is fine. However, watching the movie again, I felt it was devoid of some good sequences which would have been lifted a little more by having some scoring in them... it would have been nice to hear what the composer would have done with certain situations. Still, Jerry knows best and it is what it is... a very enjoyable score absolutely on a level with the longer score he composed for the first movie. It doesn’t really break any new ground but it is appropriate to the film that’s been made.

And that is pretty much it. Although it lacks a certain panache I thought the first movie had in spades, it still easily the best of the Ape sequels and it wouldn’t take long before the writers would be tugging on those deliberately left sequel threads and bringing out another, very interesting entry in the series. So watch this space for my review of Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes. Coming soon to a review blog near you.

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