I occasionally–or often, depending on the films I’m going through–start a post saying how much I was dreading the film and how well it turned out. Usually, these are films I used to love and haven’t seen in ten years and was worried about them. I wasn’t dreading Escape from the Planet of the Apes, I was wholly anticipating suffering for ninety minutes. I rented the Apes box set from Nicheflix and, after the first two–especially the second one, since Paul Dehn wrote both it and this film–I was desperate to avoid Escape, to avoid continuing the series. I rented it on a lark anyhow, just because Nicheflix’s price was great for six movies.
For those who don’t know, who somehow missed Escape on TV every other weekend throughout the 1990s, it takes place in modernity (1973), and features Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter (as the apes from the first two movies). They travel back in time. Nicely, the film doesn’t even bother getting into the “science” of it, not even wasting time on that sort of puffery. Not to say Escape is a lean film. The first couple acts are lean, but towards the end it starts to drag. Roddy McDowell really impresses in this film, while Kim Hunter doesn’t quite work. She has more to do and the audience is supposed to be sympathetic towards her because of the other movies. McDowell isn’t treated so nonchalantly and he provides a funny and touching performance.
But Escape doesn’t work because of the apes, it works because of the people. This film is not a serious rumination on time traveling apes. It’s a somewhat serious film, but it knows how to get the audience going, but engaging their expectations for future apes in modernity. There’s a hilarious montage of the two going around and getting dressed up (speaking all the latest colloquialisms too). It’s got a playful 1970s Jerry Goldsmith score, probably the most playful thing I’ve ever heard from him (and the best) and a lot of the film is just about having fun. Maybe not laughing out loud, but being amused. The serious parts come when the filmmakers realized they needed a conclusion, so some scientist decides the apes need to go. The scientist, played by Eric Braeden, gives the best performance in the film. Escape introduces some real internal conflict into the film series–because the scientist goes nuts and he gets it. He recognizes he’s lost it.
There are some other good performances, mostly smaller ones (Ricardo Montalban has a fun cameo and William Windom is good). The secondary male lead, Bradford Dillman, is good too, but his character is nice and nothing more.
The direction (by Don Taylor) seems bigger than the first two films in the series, which it shouldn’t. It feels more epic, but it’s really just in that early 1970s style, when extreme long shots were big in mainstream movies. A lot of it looks like a TV show, but a good one. Taylor also gets the humor and knows how to direct the audience’s attention to it without having to bonk them over the head.
I’m not sure at what point during the film I realized it was actually successful and good, but it didn’t take too long. From the opening credits, it becomes obvious it’s going to be entertaining, and while Kim Hunter’s failure to create a truly sympathetic character hurts it, Braeden makes up for that absence but giving the film a great antagonist. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it’d be understandable to anyone who hasn’t seen the first two films… However, it might actually be worth it for Escape.
Directed by Don Taylor; written by Paul Dehn, based upon characters created by Pierre Boulle; director of photography, Joseph Biroc; edited by Marion Rothman; music by Jerry Goldsmith; produced by Arthur P. Jacobs; released by 20th Century Fox.
Starring Roddy McDowall (Cornelius), Kim Hunter (Zira), Bradford Dillman (Dr. Lewis Dixon), Natalie Trundy (Dr. Stephanie Branton), Eric Braeden (Dr. Otto Hasslein), William Windom (The President), Sal Mineo (Milo), Ricardo Montalban (Armando) and Marshall Stewart (Arthur, the zoo keeper).