Spanked by the Monkey: Escape from the Planet of the Apes
It’s closing the circle time in the Planet of the Apes series. After Charlton Heston selfishly tried to ruin all the monkey fun by destroying the Earth in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, the writers had an almost impossible corner to paint themselves out of. Sure, the end of Beneath and the morbid postscript make for fantastic stuff, but if you want an incredibly profitable series to continue, where do you head after that? There were basically 2 approaches that the could take- a prequel of some sort, dealing with Ape Society, but the film that should have been almost all monkey was Beneath, and they shat that, or alternatively, seeing as Taylor and Brent were catapulted into the future, then some kind of time travel shenanigans may well have been in order.
As always with Planet of the Apes reviews, I am going to spoil the ending. Be warned.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes, as the title suggests deals with the, er, escape from the planet of the Apes by Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), Zira (Kim Hunter) and new super brainy ape Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo). Crashing their spaceship in the water, they stride out in their suits to be greeted by a heavily armed human rescue party. Taking off the helmets, they shock the humans, who instantly believe the apes to be stupid, much like the space monkeys NASA used early in Man’s space exploration days. What follows next is a bizarre and strangely comical fish out of water comedy, as Cornelius and Zira reveal their intelligence and warn mankind of the fate of the Earth. Incidentally, writer dudes, Cornelius and Zira cannot possibly know what took place underneath the city, and having him access some “secret scrolls” is lazy horseshit of the highest order.
The second half of the film is significantly more disturbing. Zira is pregnant, and the happy couple (sans Milo, who had an unfortunate encounter with a primitive gorilla), have clocked on to the very real possibility that mankind, led by Presidential scientific adviser Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden), may well be making the call to exterminate them and thereby protect Earth 2000 years in the future. Their only hopes are friendly zoologists Stephanie Branton (Natalie Trundy) and Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman) who bust them out to Armando’s (a completely over-the-top Ricardo Montalbán) circus. Zira gives birth, and her and Cornelius make the not totally insane decision to make a run for it and get as far a-fucking-way from mankind as they can. Spoiler from here on in.
Unfortunately, Hassslein and the army corner our apes on a boat and in one of the most bleakly depressing scenes ever filmed gun them down. McDowall’s death is shocking, and it really did deliver a blow to the knackers, but that’s nothing compared to what’s coming next. Hasslein unloads on a swaddled baby chimp from a couple of feet. He guns down a fucking baby chimp! What a bastard. Zira uses the last of her strength to throw the baby’s corpse in the ocean before crawling over to Cornelius and dying with her head on his chest. What is it with Planet of the Apes films and astonishingly bleak endings? Even considering the doozies handed out in Planet and Beneath, this is astounding in how mean spirited it is. Luckily, there’s a twist that a blind man can see coming. Nevertheless, I’d like to know how many kids were scarred when they saw this on the screen.
The reason it’s so scarring is that we like Cornelius and Zira. They’ve always been the “nicest” and most sympathetic of the Apes, and they don’t deserve to check out like this. Furthermore, HE SHOOTS A FUCKING BABY CHIMP. I can’t stress this enough, in a series with lethally mean-spirited endings, the slaughter of an infant still stands out as a real bastard of a move. I knew it was coming this time, and it still delivered a powerful whack to the gonads. Top, top film-making.
Aside from the ending, there’s a lot to recommend here if you like that fish out of water type deal. The first half (aside from Milo’s boneheaded check out) is light and breezy, totally masking what the film has in store for us, trucking around with Zira getting wasted on “Grape Juice plus” and a fucking shopping montage that I’m sure was copied by Pretty Woman (only joking, it’s much better than that). There are amusing scenes such as Zira being all heavy handed with a feminists talking group (congratulations, Zira, you’ve found the only women’s group on the planet with more body hair than you), or Cornelius first line to the Presidential committee when he responds to “can you talk” with “Only when she lets me”. McDowall, actually, is much more comfortable with the comic lines of this film than the other actors, Hunter in particular is trying far too hard. Nevertheless, you can see why McDowall was the choice to play Caesar in the next two films- he’s got this down to a fine art, and his brilliant reply to the tailor when the poor mug is trying to take his inseam is electric.
Zira gets a bit of a short shrift here from the writers, which may possibly be why Hunter is so over the top. It’s almost as if they’ve sucked the character’s brain out and replaced it with something that you’d see a far shriller comic actress performing. This is a shame, in all honesty, because in the first two films Zira was both the brain and the driving force of the couple, and I’m not sure why they decided to retcon her so badly. It’s frustrating, actually, because she just keeps blurting out drivel to the human captors, like she’s become an old Alzheimer’s patient who doesn’t give a red one what she says. Nevertheless, I really like Hunter in these roles, and when she’s dealing with the darker stuff, she’s light years ahead of the rest of the cast. They’ve still not found an actor/ actress remotely in her league in the “Apes” films since then, although I’d like to see what the sequel to Rise finds.
The human support is, as is always the case, variable. Hasslein is a massive, massive bastard, and played with relish by Braeden. Hasslein, actually, is fucking scary, as he delivers his appalling plan to save humanity totally cold, yet backs up what is obviously an atrocity with the most hideous faux-reasonable thinking. He’s clearly meant to be the Human counterpart to Dr. Zaius, but he doesn’t have that sympathetic touch that the old Orangutan had. Montalban is waaaay OTT as Armando, but this isn’t really his film- his time will come in Conquest.
I can see why they went for this fish out of water stuff. The effects in Beneath were already starting to show their age, even if they were light years ahead of the shite in Battle, and so it makes sense from a budget standpoint to focus on just the three monkeys. As such the makeup work on Zira and Cornelius is back up to the standard of the first film. Furthermore, the intention will no doubt have been to mirror Planet of the Apes, with the two captive scientists effectively playing the Taylor role. Therefore, the scenes with the Presidential interrogations etc are no doubt meant to mimic Taylor up before the tribunal in Planet. It doesn’t work, because it’s tonally way off. Zira should be aware that she’s potentially in a whole shit load of danger, but instead blurts out information that she really should be keeping to herself. This is frustrating, actually.
This is the problem with Escape- it’s damned lazily scripted. They clearly started with the humdinger of an ending and worked back, but there’s far too much that takes place that feels overly convenient. In particular, there’s no way that Cornelius had access to Secret Scrolls (Seriously, dudes, you may as well have had him looking at fucking tea leaves), and he can’t possibly know that the means for the planet’s destruction were man made. It’s honk, actually, and there are many moments in this film that I found inordinately frustrating because of this lazy bloody scripting. Oh, and while it is all very funny getting Zira plastered on Wine, to then interrogate her as to what happened is just nasty and cheap feeling.
Overall, Escape from the Planet of the Apes is very much a film of two halves. On one hand, there’s the brilliant opening and superb second half, on the other it’s damned lazy and a lot of the comedy doesn’t work. It certainly was a clever solution to the deliberate franchise killer at the end of Beneath, and it did open the door up for Conquest and Battle to follow, so it did achieve what it set out to do. Nevertheless, I kind of like it, I wouldn’t go nuts, but I’d certainly rank it on the same level as Conquest. It does lack the sharper satire that the apes films have, but the end delivers such a punch that it’s worth watching just for that. I give Escape two and a half Orangutans holding a thumb up out of a possible 4.
Just Burton’s cinematic atrocity and disgrace to Planet of the Apes left. Joy.