Escape from the Planet of the Apes.
On a warm sunny day off the coast in southern California, a spaceship is discovered floating in the Pacific. The ship is brought ashore, the Army waiting to welcome the astronauts on-board but no one is sure where the spaceship came from or who is in fact on-board. Those waiting are stunned when the three astronauts remove their helmets, revealing themselves as apes. The three astronauts? Dr. Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), his wife, Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) and Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo). The arrival of talking, intelligent apes stuns the world, forcing the government to decide what to do with the ape trio. Some are welcoming, Cornelius and Zira especially becoming instantly famous in pop culture. Others though aren't so welcoming, questioning where these apes came from and what is their intention in coming to Earth? Both sides need to find a happy medium, but some are sure the presence alone of these futuristic astronauts is a threat to the future of mankind.
So as we talked about, Beneath the Planet of the Apes didn't leave much of an opening for the series to continue, Charlton Heston insisting that be it for the series. Money is a powerful motivator though, isn't it? The series continues, but back on Earth in modern times. Director Don Taylor begins the second half of the series, catapulting the franchise in a different route for its final three films, composer Jerry Goldsmith returning as well with a great score. The premise linking 'Beneath' and 'Escape' is a tad contrived, a tad forced when you think about how 'Beneath' ended but for the sake of where the series is going, it's not so bad. Why does it stand out from the rest?
Two reasons. McDowall and Hunter. Playing Cornelius, McDowall returns to the series after being unable to to star in 'Beneath' because of a scheduling conflict. Less than pleased with her characterization in 'Beneath' (or maybe lack of), Hunter returned because she liked the script. The story is a departure from the first two movies, but this returning duo is perfect. Where we saw Heston's Taylor and James Franciscus' Brent struggling to adjust in a simian world, we now see Cornelius and Zira going through the same struggles in a human world. Where everything else has changed around them, having a spouse is a constant. Their chemistry is perfect, two intelligent individuals deciding what should be their next step, how best to survive in this human world. They have these perfect little moments, Cornelius trying on suits, Zira trying on stylish dresses, Cornelius standing up for his wife, Zira fighting for respect that carries the story surprisingly well on an emotional level.
It's cool to see Cornelius and Zira -- key supporting parts in the first two movies, still supporting parts -- step into the lead roles. That added dimension carries the movie. Who else to look for? Bradford Dillman and Natalie Trundy as Lewis Dixon and Stephanie Branton, two doctors and animal psychiatrists who become almost public relations representatives for Cornelius and Zira, but more importantly, they become trusted friends. Eric Braeden is Dr. Otto Hasslein, the scientific adviser to the President (William Windom), who questions that if these apes come from Earth's future...why did they leave? It's Eric Braeden so yes, he's a villain. Mineo makes the most of his smallish part as Dr. Milo, the third ape to travel through time with Cornelius and Zira, while Ricardo Montalban is a scene-stealer as Armando, the charming, friendly owner of a circus who works with Lewis and Stephanie. Also look for Jason Evers and Albert Salmi as Braeden's two henchmen, while John Randolph is the head of the commission investigating what to do with the visiting simians.
There are portions of this movie that are really sweet, great emotional moments that work because of the chemistry between McDowall and Hunter. Following the trend of the first two movies though, things take a turn for the dark though near the halfway point of the 98-minute movie. The time travel aspect comes up, if someone from the future knows what's going to happen, can we change it by wiping them out? We discuss issues of nuclear war, experimentation on animals, prejudices against races and cultures, but it is all handled in subtle enough fashion that it works. The ending is pretty heartbreaking in itself, but as the series has set us up for, there's a great twist in the final scene. Definitely stick with it to the final credits.
Another worthy Planet of the Apes movie, throwing us for a loop but all for the interesting. Coming up next, the final two films in the series, Conquest of Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, neither of which I've seen in one sitting. Stay tuned!
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971): ***/****