Escape from the Planet of the Apes was the second of the sequels to the classic Planet of the Apes, and it’s a big improvement over the first sequel (Beneath the Planet of the Apes). It was directed by Don Taylor with a screenplay by Paul Dehn and was released by 20th Century-Fox in 1971.
The budget was somewhat limited but by bringing the apes to our world the budgetary limitations were neatly circumvented and are not evident.
A spacecraft splashed down in the ocean. It’s been missing, presumed destroyed, for two years. A big surprise awaits the rescue crews - the crew of the spacecraft consists of three apes. Naturally enough they are taken to the Los Angeles Zoo but when veterinary psychologist Dr Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman) starts running some intelligence tests it soon becomes obvious that these are no ordinary chimpanzees. Not only are they much too intelligent, they also talk. And talk very intelligently.
The apes are, it will not surprise you to know, Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and Zira (Kim Hunter).
A presidential commission is established to decide what to do with the ape astronauts. once their abilities are demonstrated the commission is quite sympathetic. In fact the apes are moved to a luxury hotel and treated to guided tours of the city. There is however one dissenting voice, Dr Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden). He’s a scientist and an expert in theories of time. He has his suspicions as to what the arrival of these apes means, and his suspicions are soon confirmed. It’s not that he dislikes Zira and Cornelius, but he has grave fears that their presence in the 20th century could have catastrophic consequences for humanity. When Zira announces she’s pregnant his fears take on new urgency.
The perplexing question is how did apes advance so quickly so that within 2,000 years (a very brief period in evolutionary terms) they could become as intelligent as humans. Dr Hasslein fears that he knows the answer, and he is convinced that Zira’s baby must not be born.
The rest of the movie follows Zira and Cornelius’s desperate attempts to save their baby.
The central idea here is of a sort of time loop. It’s a good idea and one of the strengths of the movie is the idea is developed by the plot itself without too many expository speeches (which are one of the weaknesses of so many science fiction films).
Giving the movie a contemporary setting has the disadvantage that we don’t see the planet of the apes itself so that visually this movie is rather less spectacular than the earlier films.
Acting in ape makeup is no easy thing but McDowell and Hunter have no difficulty in conveying the emotions of their characters, a considerable tribute to their acting abilities. Bradford Dillman is good while Ricardo Montalban contributes a cameo as a sympathetic circus owner.
The one real weakness is the character of Dr Hasslein. He’s the villain of the piece but he is in fact a man who is willing to face unpleasant truths, and is also willing to do what is necessary to save human civilisation. Both Eric Braeden and the scriptwriters really needed to make him less of a mere villain. He’s potentially an interesting and complex character but he’s not developed enough, a rather unfortunate missed opportunity that would have added more complexity to the movie.
Notwithstanding that minor quibble Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a fine science fiction movie, combining a clever idea with an emotionally involving story.
The British Region B Blu-Ray release is quite impressive. All five movies in the original series are available in a boxed set at a pleasingly reasonable price. Both the movie and the Blu-Ray set are recommended.