Thursday, July 28, 2011

FROM THE ARCHIVE: Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)


"Time can only be fully understood by an observer with a god-like gift of infinite regression."

- Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) discusses the dark, turbulent corridors of time in Escape from the Planet of the Apes.

Some movie critics have described 1971's Escape from the Planet of the Apes as the most light-hearted film in the original five-strong Ape film series.  This is so because the film treads deeply into fish-out-of-water humor as ape-o-nauts Zira and Cornelius attempt to fit in with 20th century human (and celebrity) culture.

But that welcome sense of humor doesn't survive the film's finale: a blazing, go-for-broke valedictory gut punch.  Specifically, at the film's climax, the audience is exposed to a number of truly disturbing images:

First, kindly chimpanzee psychologist, Zira (Kim Hunter) is shot in the back several times while running away from her assailant.  Next, 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 beloved 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 him.

In short order, a police sniper shoots Cornelius, and we watch in agonizing close-up as this beloved character, this pacifist chimpanzee, gasps repeatedly for air, plummets from his perch, and smashes hard onto the deck below. He lands with an unforgettable thud.

The most disturbing portion of this death scene is the close-up McDowall's character: Cornelius's lungs have been punctured, 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 gentle characters.

And yes, this move is Rated G. For "General Audiences." 

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 material now, I still can't believe how unremittingly, how authentically dark Escape from the Planet of the Apes remains.  The humor of the early part of the film is deceptive.  It only serves to enhance our connection to Zira and Cornelius, to reflect on how two strangers in a strange land seem so willing to embrace humanity, despite everything they know about it.

What I hadn't taken full notice of, perhaps, in my previous viewings of the film, is just how skilled and indeed how artistic, the film remains, in the support of such a rather bleak tale. 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 markedly 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 even considered the film ugly-looking, especially in respect to the other impressive films in the franchise.

Now, however, I see matters a little differently. Don Taylor makes great use of the rectangular movie  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 unique 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 staying at 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 visually is an odd visual conjunction of birth and dying in the same frame.

In terms of visual aplomb, Taylor also evidences a real 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, essentially. I should add, the shot also adopts the high-angle perspective frequently, and in film grammar, that shot 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 carefully 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 Planet of the Apes' famous "See/Speak/Hear No Evil" Tribunal.  For a film that cloaks itself, at least initially as a comedy, this mirror-image approach is downright crafty.

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.

Interestingly, the final film in the original five-strong movie, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, returns to this theme.  There, Virgil (Paul Williams) also suggests that there are multiple paths (or lanes) to different futures.   This is important to Caesar -- as we shall see -- because he wants to avoid the end of the world that Zira and Cornelius witnessed (the ending of Beneath.)

Critics are always quick to note 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 much underlying commentary in Escape from the Planet of the Apes about the American media and pop culture, and how it proves 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."

Within a few weeks, however, the apes are spirited to an undisclosed location, and eventually murdered. The culture that worshipped them has apparently forgotten all about them; moved on to different bread and circuses, apparently.

The message: souls as honest and gentle as Zira and Cornelius get snuffed out in this media "circus" (as opposed to Armando's more compassionate circus, a place of sanctuary).

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 appropriate a descriptor from director 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 effectively made.

In truth, the enduring power of Escape from the Planet of the Apes probably arises from the vivid, unforgettable, bloody ending. 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).

Planet of the Apes is an intellectual franchise first and foremost, a series about scintillating, stimulating, even provocative ideas.  There's almost a bloodthirsty-aspect to the films and their treatment of beloved characters, especially in Beneath and Escape.

Not exactly a barrel full of monkeys.


14 comments:

  1. Anonymous11:31 AM

    And calling 'mama' also ties in to the human baby doll of the first movie...

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  2. Anonymous11:41 AM

    Hi John. Great series of reviews so far. You have to be a certain age to realize how important POTA was pre Star Wars. I remember watching the series on the 4:30 movie in NYC all week without seeing how dark these movies are. The only one never shown was Battle for the planet of the apes, which oddly enough is the only optimistic one. Battle I knew via the Peter Pan record adaption. As a kid, I always rooted for the apes, but now as a 40 year old parent I root for Dr. Hasslien. Does that make me a terrible person? LOL. Granted, I own the boxset but haven't watched Escape in years because of the ending. Keep up the great work and I'm looking forward to the Horror of the Nineties book. Please do a book on science fiction movies as well.

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  3. Hi anonymous(es?)

    Yes, you're right, the ape baby calling out Mama does reflect back to that archaeological dig and the discovery of the human doll in POTA. Great connection! It's funny how these films all mirror and build off one another; the inter-connection and inter-textuality of the saga is really pretty amazing.

    Anonymous 2: I agree with you that the POTA movies carry resonance especially for folks of a certain age. I'm 42, and like you, I was first introduced to these great movies on the 4:30 movie on Channel 7 in NYC. What a week tht was, right? I'd love to travel back in time to see the movies that way again -- even cut up all to Hell and with commercials -- just for nostalgia's sake.

    Escape is a painful film for me to watch, largely because of the ending. Ursus, Zaius, the Mutants and even Taylor and Brent are all combatants in one way or another, it seems to me. But Zira and Cornelius and their child: they're just a family. They don't deserve what happens to them.

    Horror Films of the 1990s will be out in September! And I'm actually working on a series of Science Fiction Film Review Books. I hope to have at least a couple of volumes out by the end of 2011.

    Thank you so much for the kind words, and the great comments!

    Warmest wishes,
    John

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  4. Anonymous2:54 PM

    John brilliant reviews of each PLANET OF THE APES movie(keep them coming) as I was also a boy in the '70s when I first saw them on CBS prime-time movie of the week in '73 or '74 before the debut of the CBS television series spin-off in 1974.

    I was surprised years ago when I discovered photo stills of Cornelius, Zira and Milo inside the A.N.S.A. Spaceship in space that was filmed for ESCAPE but was cut from the final movie.

    SGB

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  5. SGB:

    Thank you for the kind words, I very much appreciate them, and your excellent comments.

    I would love to see those shots of the chimps in the space capsule. Did that scene show them in Earth orbit, as the planet was destroyed? And more importntly, has that footage been released as an extra yet? (I have the blu ray, but haven't watched the extras yet...)

    Great comment!

    All my best,
    John

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  6. Anonymous4:29 PM

    John the footage has never been released on any DVD set. Here is a link to both a color and B&W still with space suit wearing Cornelius, Zira and Milo inside the A.N.S.A. Spaceship in orbit(apparenting witnessing the Earth's destruction)before the splashdown scene in ESCAPE. (just scrolldown, it is discussed)

    http://www.goingfaster.com/icarus/qapereturn.htm

    SGB

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  7. SGB:

    Thanks for the information on that scene. I had the feeling the footage had not been released, darn it!

    Thanks for the link, I'm definitely going to check this out.

    I appreciate the info and the heads up!

    best,
    John

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  8. The climax and ending of this one still hits me pretty hard.

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  9. David:

    Me too. You're definitely not alone there. This ending is pure "kindertrauma" stuff.

    I still can't believe the film was G rated...

    Thanks for the comment!

    best,
    JKM

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  10. As a kid seeing this in the theater, the baby chimp saying "Mama" stuck with me more than the killing of his parents. Of course, that shook me up too. Didn't Zira toss the baby next to Hasslein's floating body, in a way, giving him what he wanted? Great review, can't wait for "Conquest".

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  11. I'd also like to say my comment in the POTA thread was just some good natured ribbing about ANSA. Are we not allowed to use the actual acronym for a certain American space agency? Again, thanks for your excellent posts.

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  12. Funny you mentioned Kindertrauma, John -- I actually submitted ESCAPE as a Traumafession to them last year:

    http://www.kindertrauma.com/?p=13809

    Read my interview with Cowboys & Aliens star Brendan Wayne here!
    Follow me on Twitter

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  13. Escape was a PG, definitely.

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  14. Hi everyone,

    jdgriz: That final image of the talking baby chimp behind bars, calling for "Mama" is chilling, to this day. I like your interpretation of Zira's final act, dropping Heloise's baby next to Hasslein, as if surrendering to him tht which he sought so bloodily. Very interesting.

    You know, I don't know what the deal is with ANSA versus NASA. I wonder if the filmmaker's couldn't use the name NASA, or if they figured -- given what happens because of the spaceship's time travels -- it was better not to tar a real organization with that legacy! I don't know. I'm still answering comments in the Planet of the Apes thread, and way behind!

    Hi Filmfather: I really want to see Cowboys and Aliens, so I'll check out that review. I think we both share an absolute love of Kindertrauma -- what a terrific site. It helps us make sense of our respective childhood frissons, I guess...

    And davidfullum: I agree with you. Definitely PG material, not G!

    Best to all,
    JKM

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