Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)


The ending of Beneath the Planet of the Apes left 20th Century Fox with a peculiar problem going forward. The 1970 sequel had been more successful than the studio had expected and for the first time they began to consider Planet of the Apes as a continuing series going forward, but the apocalyptic ending of the second installment left them in something of a bind. How do you continue a story when the latest entry ended with Earth consumed in nuclear fire and all of the main characters dead? This defiant full stop that had concluded Beneath the Planet of the Apes had backed the filmmakers into a corner. The plan had been for the series to conclude with that second movie, but the promise of money usually overrides artistic intent so writer Paul Dehn was left to find a way out. The way in which he did so was ingenious, drawing on plot elements he’d layered into Beneath that could now be used in a different way, and the successful execution of this maneuver breathed new life into a series left on the brink of death following its lackluster second installment.

The solution was simple. The entirety of the third act of Beneath the Planet of the Apes had taken place underground in the ruins of New York City, exclusively following Taylor, Brent and Nova. This left two major characters, the chimpanzees Zira and Cornelius, offscreen, back at the ape village. Add in the throwaway mention of a rift in time Brent had made in the second installment and the fact that Taylor’s spaceship from the first movie still lay soaking beneath a lake and Dehn had his out: Zira and Cornelius, consummate scientists that they were, had spent that third act of Beneath the Planet of the Apes salvaging the ship, and had taken off just in time to witness the Earth’s destruction before being sucked into the tear in time. Unlike Taylor and Brent, however, the apes would be thrown back in time rather than forward ending up (where else?) in 1970’s America.

When Zira (a returning Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowell reprising the role he’d had to forgo in the second installment due to prior commitments), along with their friend Milo (Sal Mineo), make landfall off the coast of the United States, the human authorities are understandably dumbstruck. The opening sequence in which the spacesuit wearing apes remove their helmets and reveal themselves is brilliantly done, accompanied by an offbeat soundtrack and a sort of self-awareness that sets the stage for things to come. Divulging their futuristic origins to the world, Zira and Cornelius decide to keep a few things to themselves: namely that humans were used as lab rats in their future and that the Earth was ultimately destroyed in a war between the apes and remnants of humanity.

The pair quickly become members of high society, raking in a slew of speaking engagements and international media attention as they adapt to their new life. Slowly they begin to realise though, that human paranoia makes their lives far more dangerous than they think. If apes grow to be the dominant species, doesn’t it follow that Zira and Cornelius may be the catalyst that kickstarts that development?

Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a brilliant swerve for the series to take. The dynamic between apes and humans in the post apocalyptic future had been thoroughly explored in the first two installments, to the point where there was little left to say. By making apes the protagonists of this new tale, and transporting them to an environment where they are the odd ones out (a neat parallel to Taylor’s role in the first film), Dehn and director Don Taylor are given the opportunity to come at the series’ themes from a different angle.

The tone of Escape the Planet of the Apes is more overtly comic than it’s predecessors, but that veneer of humor masks a hidden darkness; a sharp edge that lurks beneath the borderline slapstick absurdity of the opening act. By making us root for the apes, the film persuades its audience to take a harder look at humanity’s inherent instinct for survival, one that often proves destructive when taken to its extreme. As the film goes on it gets progressively darker, and more and more of that humor is stripped away to reveal sinister elements concealed just beneath surface level. The final act is a particularly excellent stretch of film, marking one of the best sections of storytelling featured in the series thus far and further allowing Hunter and McDowell to showcase their considerable capabilities from beneath those iconic masks.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes takes the series in a bold new direction, one that promises great things going forward. Paul Dehn’s cleverly subversive script and strong performances from the film’s leads make this entry in the Planet of the Apes saga one that returns to the highly successful allegory of the first installment, while setting up a wide array of interesting ideas to be utilised going forward.