Monday, February 15, 2016

So were your mother and father: Escape from the Planet of the Apes

The scale is smaller, the budget is smaller, yet the stakes are higher. Strangely, the escape from the planet of the apes has already been accomplished by the time the movie opens. Unless you want to see the title as somewhat more figurative, which is worth pursuing.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes: 1971, directed by Don Taylor.

The movie opens with Taylor's space ship ocean. Some military guys bring it to shore and out come Zira, Cornelius, and and ape we've never met before named Milo (he dies early on). The apes don't talk, and they're taken to a zoo infirmary where, eventually, they reveal to a veterinary psychologist (Dr. Bratton) that they are intelligent. They're brought before a committee and show the world that they can talk and whatnot. There follows some lighthearted scenes of the apes in human society, buying clothes, drinking wine, hobnobbing, and the like. But there's another scientist, a time travel expert sort of guy named Hasslein, who finds holes in their story and eventually learns that the apes rule the earth in the future and that the planet gets destroyed. Hasslein becomes convinced that the only way to save the future is to kill the apes--including Zira's unborn child. The apes are taken into custody, but they escape, killing a guy in the process. The hunt is on, and Bratton hides them in a circus run by a guy named Armando (played by Ricardo Montalban of all people). Zira has her child--born about the same time as another chimp at the circus. But for reasons I can't recall, the apes can't stay in the circus. Instead, they hide in an old shipyard. They're found, and all three are killed. Another bleak ending...or is it.

Of course not. They need more sequels. So, as was hinted earlier, Zira switched her own baby with that of the other chimp mother at the circus. Armando is fully aware of this, and it's with him and baby Milo that the movie ends. Milo proving his lineage by saying "mama."

Maybe the most interesting thing about this movie is the jarring shift from the apes romping about town with their human entourage and the murderous last act. After the previous movies, you've got to know that something bad is coming, but, man...

As with the previous movies, there's not much interrogation of the concept that an evolved ape would be appreciably different from a human being. There's no distinctly chimpanzee behavior displayed by the adult apes, though the newborns are, interestingly, played by actual apes. Apart from the scene in which one is shot four times, of course. There are a couple of vocalizations on the part of Roddy McDowell/Cornelius that veer toward simian in character, again when he's distressed, but that's it.

We get more of the future history of earth, though, which is interesting. We learn about the plague that killed all the pets and, I think, inspired the direction of the two most recent films. We learn that, though the apes speak English, they don't know it by that name.  We learn that people started keeping apes as pets, and that eventually apes gained sapience and learned to talk through close contact with humans.

There was an opportunity to critique the culture of the time, with the apes being clothed in human trappings, but it's largely not taken. This isn't that kind of movie, though I wish it would have been, at least a little. A little less plot, a little more of the ape perspective on 1970s America could have been really interesting.

Still, I liked this movie. I don't recall anything about its two sequels, though, so I'm interested to see where they go.

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