Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

Directed by Don Taylor
Written by Paul Dehn

After the events of both Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes, it was curious to me where the franchise may decide to go for future installments. In many ways, it had felt like the story on the “present day” Planet of the Apes had been told out, especially with the destruction at the end of Beneath. It appears the filmmakers were on the same page as me, as with Escape from the Planet of the Apes takes a new direction and setting entirely, bringing the apes we’ve come to know back to “Earth”, that is to the time of our own, human dominate present day. By doing so, I think the filmmakers are opening the series back up to endless possibilities. Where they decide to go after shifting the setting and timeline, well that’s an excellent question, but I wonder how successful they will be given the poor reputation of the series. Poor reputation may be a little strong, but these films onward are certainly not films that are talked about very often or in a very shining light when they are. It seems like they are largely forgotten alongside the classic Planet of the Apes when any discussion arises.

At the conclusion of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) escape away in the spaceship along with Milo (Sal Mineo) as the world is destroyed, but they are transported back in time to Taylor’s present. Discovered by American authorities, the apes eventually reveal themselves as intelligent after being investigated by zoologists. This spurns a presidential commission, and rockets Zira and Cornelius to stardom as oddities, but after Zira lets slip that they come from the future where apes rule and the Earth is destroyed, they become enemies of the state and must go on the run with the help of sympathetic veterinarians Stephanie (Natalie Trundy) and Lewis (Bradford Dillman). To add to the stress levels, Zira is also pregnant with their first child, whose existence threatens the future of the world.

In many ways, it feels like Escape from the Planet of the Apes may be the “jumping the shark” moment in the series. While the move is necessary to keep things going, the delivery and actual finished product of this movie are very poor. I can’t help but feel as thought losing that “human” lead character (Taylor and Brent) shifts the focus in such a way to make it less interesting. That’s hard for me to say, as Zira and Cornelius are characters I’ve come to love, especially through their performances. Kim Hunter has done wonders in the series to this point as Zira. But it felt like much more of a shift to lighthearted comedy/sitcom, with the fish out of water premise really driven up to the nth degree. We even get a sequence where Zira and Cornelius have a Pretty Woman moment where they shop and get dressed, and then later Zira is treated to “special grape juice” for comedic effect. This film really loses its bite, and fails to really live up to the type of social and political commentary the series did so well in the first two films.

I think one of my biggest complaints about this film, is that not nearly enough happens. It’s a slight film, coming in at just over 90 minutes, but after the apes appear back on earth in the present, there’s just a lot of procedural happenings, without any real meaningful character or story arc. I miss that from the first two films, and not having a real pulling force with a clear allegory, or clear objective just makes it a movie that happens, but doesn’t make us feel anything. We certainly learn to be sympathetic towards Zira and Cornelius, that groundwork has been done in the first two films and somewhat here as well, but not knowing the end game, this film in many ways feels like part of a greater whole that perhaps the remainder of the original series will tell. But if so, that is still a failing of this specific film, as, even with a series of films, each individual film requires a self-contained tale. I’m not sure this one lives up to that with any interested beginning, middle and end. They are there in the pure definition of the terms, but it feels too slight, and too much like a transitional film for me to sing any of its praises.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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