A spaceship has crashed off the coast of California. The army arrive to greet the trio of astronauts that emerge but are suitably surprised to find three primate faces staring back at them. It doesn’t take long for the apes to reveal their intelligence and the general public are quickly won over by the obvious charisma of these intelligent, if hairy, visitors. However, what will happen when they reveal their true origins and what does the future hold in store for humanity on the planet of the apes?
The ending of Beneath the Planet of the Apes seemed to scupper any plans for further instalments in the simian series, but lo and behold a mere twelve months after the sequel a third film was released. But where could the franchise go from the rather final denouement of the previous film? The answer was backwards – in time that is – as writer Paul Dehn, responsible for scripting four of the five films, boldly reinvigorated the concept with a deceptively simple reversal of the first film's plot.
Opening with a shot of a familiar looking coastline – a coastline that resembles the one upon which disbelieving astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) beat his fists into the sands and damned humanity when realising where he had been all along – Escape from the Planet of the Apes could be seen as a cynical cost effective cash-in on the popularity of the previous movies. Also, the basic scenario seems to contradict the established facts from both Planet of the Apes and its sequel; how come these apes know so much about the fall of man, and how can they repair and pilot a crashed spaceship when they looked on with incredulity at a paper plane made by Taylor? However there isn’t much time to dwell on such relatively unimportant issues, as the plot moves along at a well judged pace once the premise has been established.
What is most interesting about the script is how much of Pierre Boulle’s novel has been used in the story structure. Indeed, it appears more consistent with the source material than Planet of the Apes. The scientific tests given to the apes, the friendship between the scientists and their subject, the initial acceptance by society and the pregnancy with its tragic repercussions all remain pretty much intact, the obvious change being the reversal of roles of course. It is also fun to see many scenes and situations which are direct parallels to those in the first film. The visitors appearing before a tribunal for example, as well as the male/female scientific duo, played by Bradford Dillman and Natalie Trundy (the only actress to appear in four of the Apes films, playing both a human and an ape) who are strikingly similar in their idealism and sympathetic natures to Cornelius and Zira. But it is the two chimps from the earlier films that are the heart and soul of the movie.
Roddy McDowall (who was absent from the previous movie) and Kim Hunter are the real key to the film's success, investing Cornelius and Zira with more humanity than most of their hairless cousins. They seem to be enjoying the opportunity to bring genuine emotion to their characters and it is not hard to believe that the public would warm to the natural charm of this pair. A pivotal court scene is just one example of the witty and realistic banter between them – when asked whether he can speak, Cornelius glances at Zira whilst replying: “Only when she lets me”. This light-hearted tone is prevalent throughout the first half of the movie and is a welcome respite from the more downbeat feel of the previous films. The media celebrity status of the duo is exploited for comic effect by Dehn’s witty script; shopping sojourns, a trip to the tailors for Cornelius, parties in which they are the centre of attention, Zira’s introduction to champagne, or rather “Grape Juice Plus” (no PG Tips for these chimps!) all portray a rather different response than the one Taylor received.
However the tone effortlessly shifts into more pessimistic territory at the midway point with both the revelation of Zira’s pregnancy and the fate of mankind in the far future. The fugitives-on-the-run scenario takes over and the apes, assisted by friendly circus owner Ricardo Montalban, attempt to evade capture. It is pretty obvious that things won’t end happily for all concerned; nevertheless the finale, set in an abandoned shipyard, is still effective.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes should have been a fitting final chapter to the apes saga, it brings the plot full circle with the familiar themes of time travel films; the inescapability of the future, and the cyclical nature of time. A consciously witty script, expert performances from the leads and a return to composing duties for Jerry Goldsmith all add up to the last truly entertaining entry in the monkey movie cycle. Alas Twentieth Century Fox decided to continue the franchise with two further films of diminishing quality (not to mention a cartoon show, television series and unnecessary remake). Conquest of the Planet of the Apes returns to tackle social issues with its emphasis on racism, civil rights and revolution but despite a few good ideas is only partially successful. Battle for the Planet of the Apes is totally redundant to the series – well, maybe not totally, as it does give viewers the chance to see John Huston in a monkey mask.