Planet of the Apes 50th Anniversary Blogging: Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
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.
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.
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.
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 among 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.
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."
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.
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.)
Within a few weeks, however, the apes are spirited to an undisclosed location, and eventually murdered. The culture that worshiped 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).
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 instance).
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).
Not exactly a barrel full of monkeys.