After two films that featured armies of simians pushing around humans and wielding machine-guns in dramatic ways, the formula for the Apes films was pretty clear: Ape armies are scary. After the Apes series hastily destroyed the entire planet in the first sequel, you’d think the people behind the scenes would just ignore that continuity all together. If the planet of the apes (who own machine guns) is gone, then you’ve got no ape armies, and as such, no Planet of the Apes movie. Right? Instead, a brilliant choice was made. They flipped the whole thing around and turned the movie into a small, heartwarming drama about the apes coming to Earth. And best of all, nearly half the film is a straight-up comedy.
The opening shot of Escape from the Planet of the Apes is almost exactly like Beneath, insofar as it depicts a lonely beach, immediately calling to mind the last moments of the first film and the first moments of the second. Instead, a helicopter quickly flies overhead, cluing you in to the fact that we’re on a contemporary beach on contemporary (1971) Earth. We then see yet another crashed space ship which looks just like the human spaceships from the first two Apes films. Has Col. Taylor somehow returned to the Earth of the past? Or perhaps it’s his faux doppelganger Brent? The government rushes to meet three helmeted astronauts who emerge from the ship. The astronauts take of their helmets only to reveal that they are all apes. Cue 70s disco music. The movie has begun and this time, the apes are the real stars.
Two of the apes are none other than Cornelius (Roddy McDowall is back, this time for good!) and Zira (Kim Hunter). They are joined by a chimpanzee scientist named Milo (Sal Mineo) who we’re told is responsible for repairing Col. Taylor’s spaceship from the first film and flying it off the Earth just before the planet exploded. The fact that the Earth was destroyed in the future is not ignored one bit by this sequel, we just have to swallow the fact that somehow Zira, Cornelius, and Milo jumped on a spaceship right before everything went boom.
After Milo is tragically killed by an earth gorilla, Zira and Cornelius have to go before a Senate hearing to prove their intelligence with the assistance of the kind Dr. Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman). Lewis advises them to go easy on the Senate hearing as to not freak everyone out right away. In this way, Escape parallels many of the themes of the original novel when Ulysse had to prove his intelligence to the apes without rocking their sensibilities too much. Ultimately Zira and Cornelius do win over the panel in a hilarious sequence. Zira tells the panel her name is “Zira” causing a stir of disbelief and an assertion that her speech is simply an accident and doesn’t prove she’s intelligent. One of the panel members than asks, “Can the male speak too?” After an awesome comic pause, Cornelius says, “Only when she lets me.” The room erupts in applause and laughter and our chimps are at this point totally accepted by society. One well-placed wisecrack and the Senate hearing is over.
Then begins a series of scenes, which can only be described as Zira and Cornelius being the toast of the town. Dubbed the “ape-nauts” (pronounced “ape-a-nauts”) by the news media, the pair get fitted for human clothes, attend parties, go on talk shows, make appearances at luncheons, you name it. The great thing about all these scenes is that it becomes very apparent the movie was just filmed in and around Los Angeles. The budget of the whole thing looks to be slightly less than an episode of the 1970s Mission Impossible or CHiPs. The small budget and small scope doesn’t mean the drama isn’t compelling or moving. In fact, just the opposite. Escape from the Planet of the Apes is so much better than its predecessor in nearly every way, but the primary reason why it makes Beneath look like a devolved monkey of a movie is because Escape has a comprehensible coherent plot. You might think it’s just going to be about Zira and Cornelius yucking it up and getting drunk at parties (which would be fine!) but there’s real conflict here.
It turns out Zira is pregnant! To make matters worse, after a bad guy gets Zira drunk at a party she accidentally spills the beans that she and Cornelius are from the future and in the future the Earth is destroyed by a war perpetrated by gorillas. It is also revealed later that Zira performed experiments on humans in his future, but always in the case of scientific research. The government also discovers that she and Cornelius have been concealing their knowledge of Col. Taylor, which despite their assertions that they loved Taylor still does not convince the now terrified humans. Things get a little bonkers here when Zira tells a story about how the apes truly came to rise on Earth. At some point in the future cats and dogs become totally extinct, leaving humans petless. To replace the pets, humans started having apes in their household. But apes were more trainable than cats and dogs, and soon a servant class, and then a slave class emergered. This led to revolution, which, in turn led to the planet of the apes. However, a talking ape is the ape that initially incited the revolution.
Everyone is now convinced that Zira and Cornelius’s baby will be that talking ape, and the decision is quickly made that Zira’s pregnancy should be terminated and she and Cornelius be sterilized. With the aid of Lewis and another scientist named Stevie, the two apenauts go on the run in a mad attempt to save their child.
At this point, you’re probably thinking the movie is lacking a little Ricardo Montalban, and you would be right. Luckily, Ricardo Montalban is introduced in the third act. His name is Senor Armando, owner and operator of Armando’s circus. He agrees to harbor Zira and Cornelius and aid in the birth of their child. This portion of the film gives us a wonderfully creepy scene in which Armando lovingly outlines the virtues of being “dominated” by a race such as the apes. As only Ricardo Montalban can, this speech is both absurd and captivating at the same time.
Though we don’t know it at the time, while in the circus, Zira switches her newborn chimp baby with an ordinary chimp baby and her and Cornelius go on the run again. The film concludes with the government catching up with the couple and the evil scientist character gunning them both down in cold blood. Like the previous films, this initially lighthearted Apes film turns out to be a tragedy. And in keeping with the cynical tone of the protagonist of the original movie, the message here seems to be once again that human beings are bad news. Unlike Beneath however, this tragic ending really hits home. And in the final scene, when you realize the baby of Cornelius and Zira is safe and sound in Senor Armando’s zoo, you might get a little teary-eyed. And then the baby chimp talks!
Though this sets up the sequel pretty well, I have to say Escape actually could be watched as a stand-alone movie. It’s sweet, genuinely funny, heartwarming, and has a classically tragic story. The chemistry between Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall is fantastic at the risk of sounding like a pushover, I have to say, they are really cute together. If you’ve got a loved one who isn’t so sure about this whole science fiction thing, and you want to win them over with a little known cult classic, then blow their minds with the heartwarming hilarity of Escape from the Planet of the Apes.
Though if you’re in the mood for a sequel, there’s good news. Because not only is Roddy McDowall back for Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, so is Ricardo Montalban!
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.