Escape Back to the Planet of the Apes: Enter Paradox

Escape back to the Planet of the Apes

The third of Jokerside’s retrospective looks at a turning point of the all-conquering Planet of the Apes franchise. This summer’s revelled in dystopia, showing that the recent Apes reboot was ahead of its time. But it didn’t owe so much to the stark and iconic original with its Lady Liberty conclusion or Tim Burton’s Apes film that time forgot… Read on for the film that made Apes contemporary. 

IN HINDSIGHT, THERE WAS NEVER AN EVOLUTIONARY DEAD-END WHEN IT CAME TO PLANET OF THE APES SAGA, MUCH AS TIM BURTON’S 2001 RE-IMAGINING LOOKED LIKE ONE. There was still a lot of stock in those dominant Apes of the late 1960s and early 1970s. And even though Fox Studios wisely decided that the critical stock wasn’t quite there at the beginning of the century, despite the reboots solid box office, the franchise could never be seen as anything other than a sleeping King Kong. When the right hook appeared less than a decade later, it didn’t lay in the same place as it had in 2001…

A different dawn

In the first part of this retrospective, it all ended with a beginning. Tracking the nihilistic fate of humanity, 1968’s Planet of the Apes followed Charlton Heston’s Taylor as he discovered that humans had doomed themselves to subjugation by insurgent Apes… And then accepted the pointlessness of it all and destroyed the Earth in the sequel. It was bleak, no doubt about that, but the studio wanted more. Alongside animated and live action television series, there would be another three films that put paradox front and centre of a franchise that had previously used time travel as a loose but science-anchored device to look at man’s ultimate fate.

The second part of this retrospective looked at how Tim Burton’s flawed 2001 reimagining had got its opposable thumbs in a twist trying to forge something new and iconic from a franchise it defined as temporal paradox and general monkeying around. Amid high stakes studio play, it got the angle wrong and proved a short-lived revival. Fortunately the source material was rich. While Pierre Boulle’s original novel, the short tome that had sparked the whole saga, had propelled men forward to witness the dominance of apes, it left plot strands and ideas that even the original five films hadn’t picked up. And when it came to writing around the end, it was the only place to look.

Having destroyed the world in a very finite way at the end of the second film, a famous telegram reading “Apes exist. Sequel required” landed on the plate of Paul Dehn. And it was this legendary adapter of Goldfinger, Taming of the Shrew and later Murder on the Orient Express whose storytelling steered the Ape ship for the next three years. He chose a simple and brilliant escape route, taking the favourite apes from the first two films and dispatching them back to the present day, suddenly contemporary to the present/near future that Taylor had left in Planet of the Apes.

It’s the point where the main film Apes timeline diverges for the first time, based on an ontological paradox. Zira, Cornelius and brilliant but short-fused Dr Milo’s arrival in the ‘present day’ at the very least sped up the ape ascendency, and by altering that time flow must cast the eventual fate of Earth in doubt (although of course, Taylor’s journey had already taken place).  But despite necessarily altering the franchise premise, Escape from the Planet of the Apes may be the one film that draws the most from Boulle’s novel, albeit by visiting key sequences, ideas and the final literary exposition from the opposite angle.

The first two films, suddenly cast in self-contained relief, only brought realisation about the planet’s true origins, not the truth surrounding the fall of man or the rise of the apes. Dehn saw the perfect opportunity to tell that story, just as Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Rupert Wyatt would when it came to the 2011 reimagining of Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

That baton of mirroring…

What other franchise can reverse its central principles at the third film?

Escape signals a huge change of pace not just through its contemporary setting, but through that oh-so clever idea of reversal. After charting man’s arrival into the strange world of apes, the third film sees three apes arrive into an all too familiar world of men. It’s three apes of course, mirroring the first human crew we saw. And once it’s grabbed that baton of mirroring, it won’t let it drop. The science is magicked away just as in the original – this time the shockwave from the destruction of the Earth is briefly thought to have catapulted the apes 2,000 years back – thanks to the unexplored genius of Dr Milo.

Once again we start near the sea, but this time there’s a helicopter orbiting the battered spacecraft drifting in the ocean. And as soon as the military appear, it’s clear that it hasn’t landed on Boulle’s second planet, as original human explorer Ulysse had at the end of the novel. The craft is surrounded by humans and amid the surreal and iconic comedy of the three astronauts emerging from the craft and taking their helmets off to reveal their species, director Don Taylor pulls out an unsettling quality. Thank goodness, in the all-round confusion, that a funky title score from the ever reliable Jerry Goldsmith puts us firmly in the 1970s.  Within minutes Escape has proved that the ease of changing pace is a real strength in the franchise, not least adding a level of humour was often lacking from the previous films and remains slight in the recent reboot.  We soon find out that comedy in this film, itself governed by its own fate, comes as a counter-point to acts of extreme horror and the savagely tragic finale. And much of reason it hangs together so well is down to the brilliant turns of the returning Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter.

In capable hands, there’s no harm in much of Escape taking the same fun route that Star Trek IV would a decade later. But Escape seldom misses the opportunity to nod, reference and reverse the original film or Boulle’s novel. Here the three astronauts are soon behind their own bars, with a human male and female studying them. Although unlike Taylor, these apes had an inkling of the world they were coming too and crucially they can discuss it when they’re alone.

Signs and portents

The genius of the mission is ended by a gorilla…

The ape’s plight provides a fine platform to cast an eye over contemporary society; exploiting that great opportunity offered by science fiction. Media comes under scrutiny with the apes’ elevated celebrity – something you may think apes who’d escaped certain death would be a little more tolerant towards. Civil rights commentary runs through the film – something that would blossom still further in its sequels – while the threat of nuclear annihilation hangs over it, two years on from the disappearance of Taylor’s capsule.

While Taylor’s injury limited his communication, the way these apes work through their brief captivity is far more akin to Boulle’s Ulysse, if a tad more arrogant. But unlike the lone human’s plight of hushed conspiracy, the revelation of these apes quickly captures the world’s attention much like their literary forbear. Not that all of them make it. First the comedy of their tests gives way to Dr Milo’s savage death in a cacophony of zoo screeches. Tellingly, the genius of the mission is ended by a gorilla – reminding us that the differences between ape-kind would remain a strong theme in the franchise. Some things will always stay the same.

Enter Dr Hasslein

“We came from your future”

While the President of the United States brings a balanced view, the first word we hear his science advisor say is “fear”. That advisor is none other than Dr Hasslein, referenced by Taylor as the scientific genius who enabled their space mission in the first place, not that the pessimistic astronaut had much faith in him while he was aboard the craft. In that context he’s the central figure of the franchise and quite arguably the reason for Earth’s destruction. Here, much like Zaius and the ruling council in the first films, he takes up the villain reigns. Although being an Ape film, in a knowing world of vague, his acts are painted in pure evil. While his role in the first space flight casts him as a counterpoint of the novel’s Professor Antelle, a sad consequence of the earlier shock gorilla attack means that Hasslein never gets to meet his ape mirror in Dr Milo.

“We can’t live with lies”

Cornelius and Zira’s endearing but dangerous appearance in front of the Presidential Enquiry is the closest this sequence of films come to Ulysse’s speech in the book, and therefore a reversal of Taylor’s one-sided trial two films earlier. While humans are far more courteous and open here, their mistrust remains. And in a classic case of too much information, it is the apes’ honesty that is their undoing – pointing a heavy finger back at the humans rather than themselves. Throughout their motive stays the same, steered by Zira’s firm morality. She really is a strong and clever ape.

Afterwards there’s a pause while Dr Hasslein explains infinite regression on Eyewitness News, and gives a possible explanation for the Apes arrival and the Apes are taken around town, to barking dogs that clearly know more about their future than they’re letting on. It’s all the calm before the storm.

The future

“Defying God’s will or obeying it”

The apes’ fate is set in another reference. While Taylor stumbled into a museum on his journey to realisation, it’s during Zira’s meeting with an ancestor in a museum that she discloses that she’s pregnant. That’s the game changer, and with that revelation the apes have no more surprises for the audience. We are full confidants. Having been to the future with them, we’re bound to have a different view when the discussion of destiny pops up. It’s the first time there is real debate of course, it previously being hijacked by Taylor’s extreme brand of misanthropy. Could humanity have seen its own destruction fall from the sky with these apes?  That seems to be it.  And despite the typical science-fiction trappings the space travel implies, the horror of remains entirely terrestrial. While the President of the United States points out that Jesus survived Herod, in spite of prophecy, even the specified expert Hasslein doesn’t have a reply when asked if humanity has the right to alter the future.

The fixed future

“They learned to refuse”

Strong science-fiction themes continue to play out before the 1970s military conspiracy kicks in, by which point Hasslein has chosen his path. His deliberate and rather unsettling coercion of the pregnant Zira is a key pick up from the exposition at the end of Boulle’s book – and for the first time in the film series it fills us in on the pre-history: a plague destined to fall on dogs and cats, man taking on primitive apes as pets then service suppliers… Before they turn the tables 500 years later.  What’s fascinating is how this knowledge comes from an Ape whose presence changes the time line she’s recounting.  Forced by the man whose science made her presence possible, it suggests an ontological paradox, although the later events put the time line into immediate dispute. That may be a convenient reason why the franchise had so far struggled to keep track of dates.

Still, there’s time to reinforce the franchise’s sense of resignation with one last reversal. As her evidence triggers a sentence of abortion and sterilisation, Zira acknowledges that she has done worse to humans. She’s completed her own cycle and there’s only one possible outcome. As much as moral justice can exist in a franchise where nobody survives.

The new future

“I did it because I like Chimpanzees best of all apes, and you best of all Chimpanzees”

No film can have enough Ricardo Montalbán, and Escape is no exception when it comes to his circus owner Armando. It takes some time to reach him, an inevitable trail set by Cornelius’ overzealous and unbelievable murder of an orderly, but it’s always worthwhile. In Armando’s circus, the production takes the interesting step of mixing a real chimp baby with the Oscar winning ape prosthetics of the older primates. It’s a distracting move and one that highlights (or can’t help to expose) the leap in intelligence and yes, physiognomy, that this cycle would never confront – although the reboot would build this into its DNA. In the original cycle, here’s where the future’s set in the robust storytelling of what at first appeared to be Armando’s smug pride: “The first chimpanzee to be born in a circus”.

The deserted wreck of an abandoned ship make a fitting set for the finale. It couldn’t signify the man-made world better, everything alien to ape. The apes are alone and doomed. And as Zira the fugitive and recent mother remarks, she trusts only three humans despite all their time on the planet. And by this time Hasslein, not at all what we may have imagined, from Taylor’s first mention is on his crusade. It’s an incredible tragic and brutal end, particularly the shooting of the infant in the rags. And as Zira crawls to die on her departed mate the camera swoops out… While Armando’s circus leaves town and one chilling word shows that destiny won’t be cheated. And it’s not a “no”.

“Mama”

The classic switch. Haunting stuff. And by the end the strangest of things has fully happened. Three films into a successful franchise and there’s a definite turning point. After exploring all manner of greys and struggling to find even a smidgeon of hope for mankind through the actions of its final, miserable son… We’re now fully rooting for the apes.

Next time: Conquest to Rise – How the Franchise rebooted itself back to the top…

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