Synopsis: Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter reprise their original roles as Cornelius and Zira in this third chapter of the Apes saga. When two intelligent simians travel from the future to present-day Earth, they enjoy celebrity status – until a government plot forces them to run for their lives!
In light of the latest ‘Planet of the Apes’ film being released this Friday, I’ve decided to watch all the original films in chronological order (as opposed to order in which they were produced/released).
I should note that they’re hardly my favourite films. I find the series severely flawed, hampered by poor storytelling despite some interesting ideas. The acting is also generally subpar, whether it be the human or ape characters.
Still, I felt it timely to revisit the lot of them in anticipation of a film that will no doubt continue the devaluation of Pierre Boulle’s original sci-fi novel.
Our story starts in 20th century North America (presumably in 1971 – when the film was made) when three apes land on our shores in a spaceship from the future. The world is amazed to find out that they are intelligent and capable of speech, but the US government is suspicious and all our fates come into question.
It’s a great concept. While it’s sensibly a reversal of the original film, viewed in its proper place in the series it’s a comparison of the way both species would treat alien visitors if they were to make themselves known (not unlike ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’). Viewed chronologically, this film ends up being a commentary on human experiment on animals.
The film also attempts to comment on a few other contemporary issues, such as female emancipation (albeit in a brief and rather narrow-minded way), human violence (the apes, chimpanzees, are pacifists and have a difficult time with what they see in our culture), pollution, human overpopulation and even nuclear war – a theme that has been explored time and time again in the series (hardly surprising given the era!).
The problem is that the writing is simple-minded to the point that one has to wonder if the target audience was 10-13 year olds – thus, the commentary lacks bite while the story frequently moves along in an unrealistic fashion. And yet, it’s gritty enough that it might have been troubling for children younger than this age group (that probably wouldn’t be the case these days). So who were they trying to please?
The acting is passable in this piece. The two veterinarians who are the apes’ allies are decent enough, their nemesis, Dr. Hasslein, gives a cerebral enough performance, and Roddy McDowall and Sal Mineo give life to their ape prosthetics. Conversely, Ricardo Montalban plays it very broad and Kim Hunter turns her own ape character into a cartoon. Annoying. Pretty much the rest of the actors are third-rate, but reasonably tolerable considering.
There are no special effects so that’s not a factor here. The ape make-up is somewhat credible when related to the chimpanzees (although I suspect that they took shortcuts they weren’t taking in the original film, as it doesn’t look quite as good), but the two “gorillas” that they show are so terrible it insults the viewer’s intelligence. I mean, really, a non-actor in a crappy Hallowe’en suit? Give me a break!
The film attempts to explain how things got from here to the complete reversal in ‘Planet of the Apes’. It’s a bit sketchy and it leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but at least they tried. Between these attempts to flesh out the ‘Apes’ mythology and the light social commentary, one can appreciate the writers’ valiant efforts to put some meat on the film.
That’s probably the reason why I find ‘Escape’ watchable. It’s not great, and I can imagine a million ways in which it could be improved, but at least someone is trying to provide substance. Kudos for that. Too bad it doesn’t have any teeth and that it’s all wrapped up in a relatively limp package – it leaves the viewer to fill in the many gaps and imagine what it could have been.