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Review: Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

Directed by: Don Taylor

Premise: The third Planet of the Apes film. Cornelius and Zira (Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter), a pair of talking chimpanzees, arrive by spaceship in 1970s America. At first they are greeted with fascination and are adored as celebrities but when the pair reveal the future of ape supremacy, they are viewed as a threat to society.

What Works: Escape from the Planet of the Apes does not immediately suggest itself as a bold film, especially when compared to the ostentatious politics of the other Apes pictures. But Escape is distinguished from other films in the series as it shakes up the formula of the first two movies and redirects the series into new and interesting places. Among the sequels in the original series this is the most tightly paced installment. The soft peddling of the politics actually works in the film’s favor as it focuses on the elements of the story rather than its political agenda. In that renewed focus on story, Escape allows for a sense of humor and its characters, both human and simian, are deeper and more developed than any other Apes sequel. This is largely due to the placement of Cornelius and Zira at the center of the film, who are likeable characters and who provide continuity between the setting and events of the first two films and the pictures to follow. The focus on the chimpanzees in Escape is central to another distinguishing trait of this film: the shift in the series’ point of view towards the ape characters. This change alters the entire scope of the series, especially in the films to come, and even though Escape is not overtly political that shift is important and has implications of its own. Where the first two films told their stories from the point of view of a white male protagonist in an oppressed position, Escape places the apes in the oppressed role and casts members of the dominant white society both as oppressors and allies of the apes. This is an important complication that mirrors the relationship of Charlton Heston’s character in the original Planet of the Apes and makes that film’s parallels with our own society more noticeable. But it is in the ending that Escape from the Planet of the Apes does its boldest work. The Apes series is characterized in part by the downbeat endings of the films. Although the conclusion of Escape is not nearly as iconic as the finale of the original or as draconian as the ending of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, the climax of Escape does manage to be the most heartbreaking in the series. The effectiveness of the ending is due to the softer, character driven scenes in the film’s first half and more than any other installment in the series, the ending of Escape actually evokes sorrow rather than cynicism.

What Doesn’t: Escape from the Planet of the Apes begins on a very unlikely scenario (even for a film about talking chimpanzees): that the apes of a non-technological society would be able to repair and operate a spaceship. It is a contrived premise that risks derailing the entire film. Fortunately, the filmmakers don’t dwell on it and move on with the story, in much the same way they got around the unlikely premise of Beneath. Escape’s shift in style and tone comes at the cost of action; this is more of a drama than an adventure film and it does not have the same kind of action qualities of the first two Apes pictures.

DVD extras: Featurettes and trailers.

Bottom Line: Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a successful turn for the series and a model of what a good sequel should do. The film continues to develop the underlying themes of the Apes franchise while challenging the audience by reversing the power relationships of the previous pictures. It also raises the stakes and effectively sets the stage for future installments.

Episode: #352 (August 14, 2011)