Review: Escape From the Planet of the Apes

A spacecraft lands off the coast of California. It’s Col. Taylor’s spaceship, but when opened it’s not Taylor who emerges but three chimpanzees! It’s Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) and Dr. Cornelius (Roddy McDowell), and their colleague Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo, in his final role). Having boarded the craft just before Taylor blew the planet up in 3955, they have travelled from Earth’s future back to the year 1973 (treated here as present day, of course). Humankind is obviously befuddled, shocked, and more than a little bit alarmed. And that’s before they hear Dr. Zira talk! Whilst Zira and Cornelius fast become curious celebrities, Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden), scientific advisor to the President of the U.S. (William Windom) thinks there’s cause for alarm about these new visitors and the fate of humanity they speak of from the future. He’s even more adamant about it once he finds out something surprising about Dr. Zira’s health. Ricardo Montalban plays Armando, a benevolent circus owner, Bradford Dillman and Natalie Trundy are well-meaning scientists, M. Emmet Walsh plays a military man greeting the apes, and John Randolph plays the chairman of a presidential inquest into the apes.

Directed by Don Taylor (“Damien: The Omen II”, “Five Man Army”, “The Island of Dr. Moreau”) and scripted by Paul Dehn (writer of all the “Apes” sequels in this first cycle), this is by far the most enjoyable of the “Planet of the Apes” sequels. It’s a nice, funny little movie that admittedly has a jarring tone from the films immediately preceding and following it. However, I think it’s a really good movie that might even be a bit underrated. For most of its length this is obviously very strange, very camp, and completely embraces it. Accept it as its own film and you’ll have a good time with this one. This is “Planet of the Apes” done as cornball “McHale’s Navy” sitcom in a way, but so far as fish-out-of-water comedies go, this is one of the few I really like.

Aside from the goofy comedy, the premise from a sci-fi POV is a much better follow-up to the first film than “Beneath” was, and things do take a more serious turn in the final stages leading to a rather violent and bleak climax. Surprisingly it doesn’t feel like it belongs to a different film. It works. The whole barmy thing does (not to mention the premise allowed for a lower budget), even if some butterflies were surely stomped on along the way to creating this premise. This is pretty much Kim Hunter’s movie, as her Dr. Zira is hilarious and sweet from her first moment. She’s adorable and Hunter looks to be having a whale of a time getting to explore something different with the character here. Zira and Cornelius (Roddy McDowell, who would get more to do playing their son Caesar in subsequent entries) couldn’t be more loveable. The sight of McDowell’s Cornelius in a multi-coloured bathrobe is hilarious, and Zira having a bubble bath is also funny. It’s a shame that Sal Mineo’s discomfort with the makeup saw his early and jarringly abrupt exit here, but a young and thin Eric Braeden (veteran soap opera titan from “The Young and the Restless”) is a fine villain who is actually not motivated by unreasonable black-hearted logic, or at least he can justify his actions somewhat. It’s his methods which are truly Machiavellian. Ricardo Montalban is well-cast as a sympathetic circus owner (Boy would a circus owner not be a good guy in today’s climate). Look out for a fun, early role for veteran character actor M. Emmet Walsh early on, bespectacled and looking amusingly perplexed. “Planet of the Apes” composer Jerry Goldsmith (“A Patch of Blue”, “The Omen”) returns to give a very 70s, but enjoyable music score.

A mostly highly entertaining inversion of the first film, this wacky film works as both comedy and science fiction. Kim Hunter is perfect, the film is jolly good fun until the downbeat finale setting up the dour fourth entry.

Rating: B


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