- Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) discusses the dark, turbulent corridors of time in Escape from the Planet of the Apes.
One of the finest and best-written horror blogs haunting cyberspace in 2010 is Kindertrauma, a site dedicated to the film and TV productions that scared (and scarred...) us all as children.
In the spirit of that blog's dedicated mission statement, I've been thinking much lately about a disco-decade era movie that disturbed me tremendously as a kid. It's not exactly a traditional pick, I grant you. I certainly wouldn't classify it as horror, per se. But it was...horrific. And it certainly rattled my young mind.
The year was 1976 when I first viewed Escape from the Planet of the Apes on ABC Channel 7's 4:30 Movie (during Planet of the Apes week). I was six or seven years old at the time. I was in kindergarten, if I'm remembering it right. The movie itself concerned three ape-o-nauts hurled back from the future of 3955 AD (the era of the Earth's destruction in Beneath The Planet of the Apes  to 1973; to now, essentially.
But Escape from the Planet of the Apes blazing, go-for-broke valedictory images -- especially following the film's easy-going, fish-out-of-water humor -- proved utterly traumatizing to me.
A villainous scientist, Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) empties his gun into the body of Zira's baby (presumably), and we see the bullet-ridden, bloody blanket in close-up.
Then, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), Zira's husband -- standing atop a high deck on a rusty ship -- kills Hasslein and we see the blood erupt out of his chest as a bullet strikes.
The most disturbing portion of this death scene is the close-up: Cornelius's lungs have been punctured apparently, and we see him register, shock, confusion and pain as the terminal nature of his wounds take effect, and he struggles for more air.
Finally, the bloodied Zira -- after dumping her baby's corpse into polluted-looking water -- crawls desperately to her husband's side and quietly dies beside him. Then there's a dramatic pull-back -- the cinematic equivalent of a "Holy Shit" -- as the camera retracts in horror from this orgy of violence perpetrated against, unarguably, the franchise's most beloved and likable characters.
And yes, this move is Rated G. For "General Audiences." Take the kiddies...
I've never forgotten this brutal climax to Don Taylor's third entry in the POTA franchise, and it's probably the reason I don't watch this film as often as I do the original 1968 film, or Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Cornelius and Zira are such kind, innocent, loving beings and throughout the film, they literally wear their hearts on their sleeves. This quality of sincerity makes them very open with strangers ("I like you," Zira tells one of their captors, the kindly Dr. Lewis [Bradford Dillman]). Yet it also makes them impulsive.
This quality of total honesty and openness means Zira doesn't know any better than to tell her human captors EVERYTHING about her work in the distant future, including her experimentation on dumb and mute humans. And Cornelius also reacts impulsively (but protectively) when Zira -- following a torture session by Hasslein -- is insulted by an orderly. Cornelius kills the boy in an instant of fleeting rage. Considering all of this now, I still can't believe how unremittingly, how authentically dark Escape from the Planet of the Apes remains.
What I hadn't taken full notice of, perhaps, in my previous viewing of the film, is just how skilled and yes, how artistic, the film remains, in the support of such a rather bleak story. I had always boasted an unspoken bias against Escape since it is the only Planet of the Apes entry set in "our time," meaning no need for much by way of special effects, make-up or futuristic production design. The film also features less action than both of its silver screen predecessors. Having seen the film for so many years on television (in Pan-and-Scan), and not the more impressive wide-screen version, I had often considered the film ugly-looking, especially in respect to the other impressive films in the franchise.
Now, however, I see it a little differently. Don Taylor makes great use of the rectangular frame in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, forging a number of remarkable compositions in the process. One of the finest examples of his work opens the film. We start with a landscape view of a timeless ocean, bracketed on the left by a jagged mountain. This image plainly recalls the post-apocalyptic Forbidden Zone, rocky shore-line and Statue of Liberty-ending of Planet of the Apes. But before we can contemplate this particular (and familiar...) vision for too long, a contemporary helicopter unexpectedly juts into frame from the left, making audiences aware that we have returned to our Earth of the present. This is a great tie-in to the previous films; one of great visual consistency for the series. It's exactly the opening shot we would expect of a Planet of the Apes sequel...but with a twist.
In terms of visualizations, Taylor's direction also makes a case for our eyes that the human world (soon to die in a nuclear conflagration...) is already half-dead. The Apes from the future are welcomed to this world as heroes and celebrities, but soon are tortured and mistreated by agents of the U.S. military-industrial complex. Accordingly, Zira and Cornelius go from luxurious hotel rooms to utilitarian military bases, finally to a forgotten, rusted ship-yard that represents the wasteful, ruined, industrial infrastructure of a bloated human society living on borrowed time. Zira attempts to nurse her baby inside an abandoned ship there, and the vessel is a total wreckage. So what we get is an odd visual conjunction of birth and dying in the same frame.
In terms of visuals, Taylor also evidences a preference for images which note the apes' entrapment and ultimate doom here in our 20th century culture.
A preponderance of shots reveal the endangered apes through bars, window frames, door-frames or other enclosures that suggest, at least implicitly, their snare. Even the film's final shot adopts this stance; an appropriate touch since it occurs at the prehistory of ape enslavement in human culture. I should add, the shot also adopts the high-angle perspective frequently and in film grammar, that is also a signifier of doom.
Thematically, I also appreciate the way that Escape from the Planet of the Apes is structured as a mirror-image of the original, only flipping the ape/human dynamics. Three astronauts travel through time in both stories. Kindly "animal" psychologists tend to the astronauts in both stories -- in direct contradiction to the rules of the prevailing, cruel society -- and there are also early casualties amongst the space travelers in both Escape and Planet. In Escape's presidential commission or "panel of inquiry," there's even a resonance of Ape's famous "See/Speak/Hear No Evil" Tribunal.
What's even more genuinely commendable about Escape from the Planet of the Apes is the film's central theological and philosophical argument. To wit, Hasslein discusses the nature of time...and destiny. "Time is like a freeway, a freeway with an infinite number of lanes. All leading from the past into the future. However not the same future." He tells us. "It follows that a driver -- by changing lanes -- can change his future."
But then in a conversation with the President of the United States (William Windom in a terrific, ultra-slick performance), Hasslein admits that he wonders about his next course of action. Apes will take over the world if Zira and Cornelius are allowed to raise their baby. Hasslein thus wants to sterilize the parents and abort the baby. But -- as he aptly puts it -- "which future has God -- if there is a God -- chosen for our future?" In killing the Talking Apes, is Hasslein an instrument of God's plan, or an enemy of God's plan?
The President brings up the famous Hitler time-travel conundrum in response. Would we kill Hitler in the womb, knowing what we know of the man and his war crimes? Would he kill his remote ancestors? The President's answer is one of political buck-passing. When told that talking apes will dominate Earth's future, he notes sardonically, "I doubt that we shall still be in office by then."
This thematic conceit sees a deliberate reflection in a character introduced in the final act, the circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban). Armando states that he despises those who try to intervene in destiny, and act against God's plan. And furthermore, that if it is man's fate to be dominated by intelligent apes, then he hopes those apes are as kind as Zira and Cornelius. Essentially, we have two opposing points of view here: pre-determinism (Armando) vs. free will (Hasslein). Or to put it another way, Hasslein desires to "change lanes" in order avoid a terrible future for human beings. Armando prefers to believe that we're not even driving the car. That God has us on cruise control of sorts. Changing lanes is futile, if it isn't in God's scheme.
Interestingly, the very words of Zira and Cornelius, regarding "future" ape history, inform us a bit more about the shape of this argument. The two kindly chimps insist that, according to their Sacred Scrolls, pet apes went from doing tricks to performing services in two centuries. And that they turned the tables on their human oppressors in another three centuries. In other words, in the world that Zira and Cornelius arise from (and which Taylor visited) it takes 500 years for harried apes to develop the power of speech and become conscious to the philosophical concepts of slavery and freedom, unity and corporate action. This long period of "dawning realization" may occur because there is no real intelligent leader of the movement. Insurrection, revolution and a new order must arise through the crucible of experience; through evolution. Through generations of slavery.
But by "changing lanes," by traveling back in time, Zira and Cornelius have altered destiny (and their own history). Now, their child -- an intelligent ape -- will bring about the same pro-ape revolution in decades, not centuries. So the future has indeed been changed. It has been hastened.
But the irony of this is Hasslein's role. He acts to kill the baby of the taking apes, and the world believes he has succeeded in his quest. Thus the hunt for Zira and Cornelius's child ends permanently...at least until a paranoid governor named Breck picks it up twenty years later...when it is too late. By acting to destroy the threat now, by believing he can "change lanes," Hasslein has also hastened the very future he hoped to avoid (the pre-determined future?). The apes will take over his world; and they will do it much sooner than they would have without his witch-hunt. Perhaps God has played a trick on the vain scientist. The outcome was never in doubt; only the scheduling of it.
Critics are always quick to point out the pointed social commentary in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and indeed, there's much there. Zira gives a bra-burning speech to a Bay Area Women's Club, striking a feminist chord right at the time that second-wave feminism was really entering the American bloodstream. "The marriage bed is made for two," she declares to rousing applause, "But every damn morning it's the woman who has to make it."
Similarly, Cornelius attends a boxing prize fight, and is horrified by the overt brutality of the event. By contrast, the humans don't seem to be horrified by this violence in the slightest. They cheer as the fighters pummel one another. Oppoistely, the humans do take great exception to the violence Zira inflicts on human experimental subjects...in the year 3955 AD. The same humans who decry Zira's lab experiments in the distant future are also the first to decide on her draconian personal disposition: sterilization after a state-enforced abortion. Given this scenario, Escape from the Planet of the Apes involves human hypocrisy. Or as Zira notes. "We've met hundreds of humans since we've been here. And I trust three."
There's also some underlying commentary in Escape from the Planet of the Apes about the American media and pop culture, and how it is so damn fickle. At first, Cornelius and Zira capture the hearts of "the voters" (as the President states). For a while, they are the toast of the town. Why, they even go to Disneyland to dedicate a "new boat " in the "jungle cruise."
Ultimately, Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a bridge between the first two films in the series and the last two. It is the only one not set in the future. It is also the movie, in a sense, that makes the entire Planet of the Apes series possible, since it "resurrects" characters from a destroyed Earth of the future and delivers them (and young Caesar...) into the 20th century timeline where the ascent of the Apes will soon occur. For all these reasons, Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a strong entry -- and a necessary one -- in the five-strong franchise. But more than that, it's a pretty damn fine film in its own right.
And I still find it intensely traumatizing. Cornelius and Zira are golden hearts, to steal a descriptor from Lars von Trier. We have witnessed their decency and humanity in Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and here in their last film too. To kill off such sweet, beloved characters in such brutal, unblinking fashion is almost sadistic. But the point about the cruelty of the current human culture is made.
In truth, the enduring power of Escape from the Planet of the Apes probably arises from the vivid, unforgettable, bloody ending that spawns nightmares in the young. This is a Fin de siècle film. The human world is ending; a rusted, industrial nightmare of decay and bloat, and soon to take even further hits (the death of pets by space plague is just ten years off in this time-line, for instnace).
Even the film's final image is haunting, bizarre and a little surreal. A baby ape -- the real child of Zira and Cornelius -- is behind bars at Armando's circus. Shouting plaintively. Calling for "Mama." (And voiced by the late, great Walker Edmiston).
A sad baby searching for his murdered Mama? Not exactly a barrel full of monkeys.