Saturday, May 18, 2024

Chimpan-A to Chimpan-Z: I loathe bananas


ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES

1971
Directed by Don Taylor
Written by Paul Dehn

Spoilers: high


They say that any story will end unhappily if you keep it going long enough, and frankly it had already become the custom of Planet of the Apes movies to end unhappily regardless of where you decided to stop them, but even most Planet of the Apes stories still don't end the way the original film's very first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, did; how could they?  You can only blow up the entire world, killing everyone on it, so many times.  The planet of the apes being scoured of all life obviously imposed a significant disability upon any further sequels, and, nonetheless, were such sequels made.  It was screenwriter Paul Dehnwho wrote Beneath, though the world-cracking apocalypse wasn't his ideawho cut the Gordian knot of that ending on behalf of 20th Century Fox and Apes impresario Arthur P. Jacobs, striking upon one awfully clever solution for their problems: if the series' prior standby, of humans barreling through spacetime at relativistic speeds into an ape-dominated future, was no longer an option, why not simply send a few of those apes back, into the past, and by "the past," obviously we mean "our present"?  This was rapidly embraced by Jacobs and by Fox, for not only did it continue their profitable franchise, it provided a basis for hoping it would be even more profitable, neatly mooting all the more expensive line items in the Apes budget, such as "more than three John Chambers ape masks" and "any post-apocalyptic (or even particularly imaginative) sets," without in the process diminishing any of the immense weirdness that had become synonymous with an Apes picture.  In fact, there's an argument this only makes it weirder.

Such, anyhow, is the argument for Escape From the Planet of the Apes as the craziest film in an extremely competitive franchise, and though I myself am somewhat a partisan of Beneath I will avoid making any declarations about Escape's ranking on that list, either for it or against.  It is, by all means, crazy enough, and crazy in a manner completely distinct from the craziness that came before.  It does require some rather severe contortions to get there, sadly, so while it's always fair to be asked to suspend one's disbeliefthe previous film, after all, had already lurched enthusiastically into full-on pulp (for instance, "a single thermonuclear device, still operable after two millennia, destroys the world*")Escape is obliged to get you to swallow a fair amount of actual stupidity, if it's going to exist at all.  What we're asked to believe here is that the chimpanzee scientist, Dr. Milo (Sal Mineothe apes are a highly credentialist lot, in case you've never noticed), has salvaged Taylor's spaceship from its watery grave out in what I assume is the Hudson River, and, with his great genius and the apes' 19th century technology, has repaired it to a state of full functionality in the approximately two-to-four weeks that have elapsed since the events of PotA.  You'll recall that Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) and Dr. Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) were more-or-less sidelined from the previous film, thanks to McDowall's inability to take partalternatively, it was because Dehn was thinking in terms of a Zira-and-Cornelius sequel already, which makes me wonder if that marvelous story I related about the last film's ending, concerning Dick Zanuck using the last vestiges of his authority at Fox to sabotage the Apes franchise out of petty revenge, might be too good to be truebut, either way, that means they were available to accompany Milo on his test flight, the group possibly being aware of the planet-ending potential of the gorillas' war in the Forbidden Zone, though I have no idea how they would be.  The upshot is that they're in space when the bomb goes off, and we learn now that not only did it blow up the planet, it opened up a wormhole or some such shit, throwing the trio two thousand years backwards in time, by a happy coincidence specifically back to 1973.

We can now relax, for while Escape is often incredibly loopy, it never makes such an enormous ask of us ever again.  In any event, it's earned a great deal of goodwill already, within its very first few minutes, by wisely electing to save the tortured exposition of how it fits into continuity for later, opting instead to do something properly Planet of the Apes right out of the gate, slapping us immediately with something inexplicable and strange: namely, the image of three apparent astronauts splashing down off the Californian coast and received by the U.S. military, their identity remaining unclear for a long, anxious moment, right up until they all take off their helmets to reveal the not-so-human travelers underneath.  (It's kind of a shame that the demands of the film's marketing preempted any actual surprise on this countI think if you somehow managed to go into this Apes sequel cold, it would bowl you overbut to his credit director Don Taylor still charges it with some mystery, putting in all the effort he would've if we didn't know who these "astronauts" were already.  Of course, because we did know, it's the very first of this might-as-well-call-it-a-comedy's parade of off-kilter jokes.)

Okay, I'm afraid I lied, because Escape is going to make one last hard ask of you, which is to kindly pretend that Zira, Cornelius, and Milo actually do look indistinguishable from present-day chimpanzees.  This is almost a harder ask than "wormhole," as it's something that would require, for a start, the characters to be about a good foot shorter than the actors playing them, and moreover it's something that never even came up in either PotA or Beneath, because in both films we could readily assume that over the millennia the apes' physicality had evolved at much the same pace as their mentation, so they didn't need to look exactly like chimpanzees, orangutans, or gorillas.  But Escape needs this and needs it absolutely, because our heroes, gauging their options, initially choose to remain silent, and because their ruse succeeds, they're taken not to Area 51 but to the Los Angeles Zoo, much as you'd probably do yourself if a trio of Soviet space monkeys landed in your backyard one day.  By the way, though, don't get too attached to Milo: the dramatis personae will soon be cut down to our essential duo by means of an angry (1973-vintage) gorilla, which our trio have been negligently placed in an adjoining cage to; Milo's demise will turn out to be roughly the sixth or seventh of this-might-as-well-call-it-a-comedy's parade of off-kilter jokes, insofar as the "great genius" whom Zira and Cornelius practically worship seems to have just plum forgot there was a gorilla right there, and stupidly leaned back against his cage.  You'll notice, however, that this is a whole lot darker than the film's first off-kilter joke, and it's important to keep that in mind, since that's very much the trendline that this I'm-not-entirely-comfortable-calling-it-a-comedy is going to take.


So then: at the zoo, Zira and Cornelius make the acquaintance of veterinarians Dr. Dixon (Bradford Dillman) and Dr. Branton (Natalie Trundywe apes are pretty damned credentialist lot, too), and, having silently mocked their "test" of her intellect, Zira can no longer stand it, and against both Cornelius and Milo's better judgment, reveals her power of speech.  This preposterous discovery goes straight up to the President (William Windom), and, in a startlingly wholesome move, even for a 70s movie as early in the decade as this one, instead of being buried in a dungeon under an Air Force base, the future chimps are instead revealed to the whole wide world, shocking their skeptical interlocutors at a press conference when they prove they really can talk.  The public immediately falls in love with them and they're catapulted into society as novelty celebrities, and for the moment everything seems like it's looking up for Zira and Cornelius.  Yet there are elements that fear the future chimps, above all Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden, still reeling from the loss of credibility after his last Project, I expect), who's convinced that Zira and Cornelius aren't just charming curiosities, but, at best, are withholding a lot more information than they've so far deigned to share, and, at worst, are the harbingers of the downfall of humankind.

So on just a structural level, Escape is a very interesting kind of sequel, actively inverting the first Planet of the Apes, and not just superficially so, by simply sending the apes to the planet of the men, but by having the apesunlike poor Taylor, Dodge, and Landonbe met with the kind of welcome we would only rarely extend to other humans, even if the generosity Zira and Cornelius initially experience is ultimately a thin veneer hiding a violent, irrational paranoia in some of us, and our system seems to be oddly stacked in paranoia's favor.  Indeed, one of my complaints about Escape is how rapidly it'll wind up dropping the social side of all of this by its third act: the humans will produce a few heroes (though none as charismatic as Zira and Cornelius, including Ricardo Montalban's unfortunately rather shallowly-characterized circus ringmaster), but there's not any follow-through on the notion of the future chimps' celebrity, or if the public ever even becomes aware of the uglier events that overtake them.

By the same token, however, it's a movie that only takes on any kind of shape at all very slowly, and this is one of its strengths, because we spend a fairly long time soaking in the wacky spectacle of Zira and Cornelius wandering through a satire of celebrity where even the satire is comparatively gentleit's all enough, anyway, to lull us alongside our chimpanzee heroes into a real false sense of securityand I would probably offer that Escape's very best material, or at least its most memorable material, is all concentrated in its first two-thirds, where it is indeed still just affably ambling around through a bunch of mostly harmless vignettes.  (It also lightly pokes at the franchise itself: "What is 'English'?")  But they are only mostly harmless: between the first flush of their newfound celebrity and that faintly surreal scene where Zira speaks to a women's lib group about workplace sexism, Cornelius gets a load of a prize fight and, with Cornelius alone amongst the primates in not baying for blood, for a woozy moment Escape tips back towards something grimmer again.  It is, anyway, the first two-thirds that bears what I'd personally call Escape's best single part, a long montage of our chimps-about-town that's essentially the dryest possible parody of the opening of a contemporary sitcom.  That's an impression completed via the weirdest part of Jerry Goldsmith's score, which is not once "as good" as his score for PotA was, but is at least "as interesting" as PotA's in its insistence on trivializing, happy-go-lucky cues attending Zira and Cornelius as they go human-clothes shopping, etc., and we wait for the other shoe to drop.  Meanwhile, Taylor seems to know what he's doing and why he's doing it, and so my favorite single shot of the filmpretty much all of my favorite shots involve Zira and Cornelius in Angeleno location footageis a goofy little zoom onto Cornelius as he's getting out of his limo, a pitch-perfect invocation of a television director getting ever-so-slightly ambitious, and a terrific synecdoche for the Planet of the Apes sitcom that this Planet of the Apes movie is, at this point, quite successfully pretending to be.

Soon enough, however, Hasslein is going to catch them in his web, and so he does, and things get very gloomy, very quickly, especially as Zira is pregnant, which is in fact what spurs Hasslein to even greater urgency in his cruelty.  But it's also where Dehn's screenplay gets astoundingly morally and intellectually tough for a B-movie, not exactly "challenging" on some master scale of "challenging" cinema, but awfully ready to give you moral whiplash, doing everything in its power to get you to identify with Zira and Cornelius, before practically smacking you upside the head with their future/past sins, clearly disappointed that you forgot.  It's outright mean about how it starts toying with your sympathies, then forcefully reminding you that Zira and Cornelius don't necessarily deserve sympathy; they're so forceful about this that they jam the recording of Zira's testimony on repeat, so she keeps saying half of the word "dissected," in order to drill it straight into your brain.


This is backed up by tremendous performances from Hunter and McDowall alike, though Hunter gets the vastly more interesting character, and the one that best critiques humanity, with her obvious intellect overmatched by her borderline-idiotic naivete, which dovetails well with her moral arrogance, so pronounced and unexamined that she can barely manage to remember that her human hosts probably won't react well to hearing about how she happily cut up dozens or hundreds of human "animals" while they were still alive.  Altogether it's an uncanny effect, the film being largely devoid of any particular judgment, on both sides, even: it's surprisingly willing to indulge its villain's rationale without contradicting him (though it's noticeably more the requirements of his Zaius figure, and the nihilistic Apes scenario he exists to serve, that are driving Hasslein than it is any "actual logic"); and it puts a new gloss on the franchise's future history, too, explaining that the apes didn't just take over when humans went away, the humans enslaved them first.  (Which amounts to some truly bizarre Apes lore, involving a dog-and-cat plague, the replacement of pets by apes, and the eventual discovery that apes would make great servants; and being bizarre is good, because it takes the sting out of a retcon that I somewhat actively hate, since thanks to Dehn's new tack for the series, there's not actually a lot of room left in the Apes chronology anymore for the God damned nuclear holocaust that the series is supposed to be about.  It's also worth mentioning that anytime time travel theory comes up, it's hard not to just tune the fuck out.)

But with due respect to McDowall, it's Hunter's show, always presenting an acerbically-funny, seemingly-very-nice woman, who honestly is "nice" as far as that goes, but as often as she gets up on her high horse she apparently won't ever be really psychologically capable of comprehending how morally abhorrent she is, calling into question how readily that anybody might just go with the flow of their society, no matter how horrific that flow is, secure in their conscience even after they've intellectually understood that they were "the bad guy."  Yet all along they do retain sympathymaybe in part because their compartmentalization of their own terrifying past is so humanand Escape might be the only Apes film of the first part of the franchise that truly wants you to involve yourself in its tragedy, rather than soberly consider it after the movie's over, or else simply get your brains liquefied by it.

And inevitably the tragedy arrives, Escape concluding on the traditional Apes notes of bleakness, with the more intimate scale here meaning that it lands much harderZira is still a sociopath, when it comes to her own genetic legacy's survival, but obscured within Hunter's performance and the film's concealment of its twist is a glimmer of deeply sorrowful recognition that there's no way around this one last exploitation of her lessersand the general consensus on the film, that it's the best of the Apes franchise's first wave of sequels, is not something I really have any strong contentions against, though (given the score I'm going to give it) I obviously don't quite agree with that consensus.  It's a little annoying of me, I realize, but the very thing that makes Escape special and wonderful is also its weakness, in that it doesn't have access to any of the iconic sci-fi imagery of the first two films, at least not beyond Chambers's make-up.  So of course it's just quotidian locations one after the other, because that's the point, though it's occasionally even chintzy-feeling versions of those (whereas even the make-up's worst failure in the first three films happens in Escape, a film that barely required three full make-up jobs in the first place, when McDowall furrows his brow a little too hard and it looks like the top of his skull's coming off).  Yet however you slice it, it still is quotidian locations one after the other, which results in some slight friction once they stop being funny.

And it doesn't make up for that with really tight filmmaking throughout, either.  Taylor, at times, delivers some solid shots (and, more frequently, delivers some legitimately nice edits, that bounce us into some startling new situation; yet you can readily see in any side-by-side comparison how much less Marion Rothman, who also edited Beneath, has to work with this time, with none of the trippy futuristic bullshit she got to play with there).  But that "sitcom opening credits"-style centerpiece is also by a margin the best sequence here, and there's a persistent sense that, although at this point he was veteran of several feature films, Taylor's not actually faking the mentality of the industry he'd graduated out of back in the early 60s.  On the other hand, the finale, with its ice-cold observation, probably helps sell the horror of it more than a more melodramatic, cinematic treatment would; it fits in perfectly with the franchise, at least, except this time it asks you to genuinely hurt on our heroes' behalf, and I think it earns it.

Score: 8/10

*In fairness, it's supposed to be a cobalt bomb.  This isn't how cobalt bombs work either.  It's especially not how they work underground.

2 comments:

  1. Rewatching this, I was surprised how much I laughed at the reveal of the ape astronauts despite knowing it's coming. In fact it really leaned into the comedy I lot more than I remembered. That said, it also felt like it turned serious a lot sooner than I remembered, too.

    I also realized Jerry Goldsmith's been doing variations on his Capricorn One theme years before Capricorn One was even made!

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