1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes was marked with several challenges right from the get go. Charlton Heston was gone, the budget was dwindling, and the last film ended with the complete destruction of the titular planet. This all meant the sequel would have to be a major divergence when compared to the first two films. Instead of introducing new characters, the decision was made to focus on the two characters we don’t see die at the end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes – Zira and Cornelius. Zira and Cornelius were plainly the best characters in the first two films, so it’s actually pretty exciting they’re back for more. Because we don’t actually see them die in Beneath, they retcon the ending a wee bit. Turns out, another ape-scientist was working on understanding Taylor’s spaceship from the first film. He and Zira and Cornelius were in the spaceship when the nuke destroyed the planet, and the force of the blast combined with the ship sent them back in time. Listen, it’s not Primer or anything, but we can’t hold that against it.
The new premise alleviates most of the problems going forward. There are enough characters from the original film to draw audiences. There is some semblance of a reason to tell a story after the entire planet that the series’ plot was predicated on had been destroyed. The modern day locale and lack of apes lets the budget rest easy for a bit. It even helps break up any sense of monotony the series might have accrued by shaking up the tone. Not that Beneath the Planet of the Apes didn’t distinguish itself from the original, but this sequel is so amazingly far removed from either of those films.
The movie opens with the spaceship landing off the coast of New York, and sees the apes taken to a zoo by a shocked portion of the US Army. The apes, unsure of how trustworthy the humans are, don’t immediately reveal their powers of speech. The scientist watching them realizes they are, at the very least, more intelligent than the average ape. They get run through a series of simplistic intelligence tests before Zira gets annoyed and loudly decrees her hatred of bananas (with which I can sympathize). The humans are actually pretty cool about this discovery, but stuff goes downhill almost immediately. The gorilla in the cage next to Zira, Cornelius, and a third disposable ape goes mental and strangles the exact ape you’d expect to see die. Everyone is suitably sober for a bit, before the whirlwind weirdness of the rest of the film kicks in.
See, the public almost immediately finds out about Zira and Cornelius. They get interviewed in front of a military tribunal and it is thoroughly delightful. A large part of this movie is just about letting Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter seem charming and have fun. It’s actually not as boring as it sounds, especially if you have a fondness for chimpanzees in rainbow bathrobes. Their witty, likable, televised, interview combined with the novelty of being hyper-intelligent apes lends the two celebrity status. We get to see them try wine, try on clothes, get interviewed, visit museums, speak about women’s rights, use the television, and generally enjoy themselves. We also find out Zira is pregnant. The actors sell the hell out of what could’ve been a painful collection of scenes. I do wonder how this scene would play with someone unfamiliar with the series – at this point, after two movies that saw Zira and Cornelius coping with struggles, this feels relatively earned. Would this work as well if this was your first introduction to the series? I do not know!
The movie’s tone swerves dramatically however. One inquisitive human begins to sense the apes are hiding something. The apes were, rightfully, nervous about revealing the extent of their knowledge about earth’s future. Knowing that in the not too distant future you’re going to get blown up, overtaken by apes, treated like animals, and then blown up again might throw a pallor over anyone’s party. This particular inquisitive human gets Zira drunk and records her, then takes her to be interrogated. Sodium pentothal is involved. It’s a pretty creepy scene, and the entire film now only gets more disturbing.
Upon finding out that apes are going to inherit the earth, the decision is made – Zira’s child should be aborted to prevent the rise from happening too soon. Take a second to let this sink in: this is a PG science-fiction movie with forced abortion as a major plotline. Cornelius sort of conveniently flips his shit when a waiter calls Zira a monkey and they escape from whatever government installation in which they were held. The kind doctor from the beginning helps hide them in a zoo while Zira gives birth. They then go off to an abandoned shipyard.
The movie continues to contrast its previous tone in the most spectacular of ways. Essentially everyone gets shot. Cornelius, Zira, the inquisitive jerky human, the baby. That’s right, the baby chimpanzee gets shot three or four times and Zira uses her dying breath to throw it’s corpse into the ocean. In a PG movie about talking apes adapting to modern times. The final scene reveals that Zira actually switched her baby with that of a normal chimpanzee baby from the zoo. So yeah, a time paradox totally starts the rise of intelligent apes.
This franchise just gets weirder and weirder. This movie actually handles its unbelievably harsh tone shift better than it should – because this movie seriously goes from funny talking chimpanzees in clothes to baby-murder with alarming speed and deftness. There’s definitely still some political stuff rolling around beneath the surface, even if it does seem to be a crude anti-abortion message. Nothing about this movie should be good, and yet I was thoroughly entertained. I might even call it good, even if much of the appeal may be due to the talented leads. But again, on paper, exactly zero portions of this movie should be good, so that’s an achievement.
If this franchise has managed to keep me along for the comedic-apes / baby-murder installment, it has to get bad eventually right? The quality is definitely dwindling; surely the entertaining insanity will inevitably be overshadowed by the mediocre craft? Then again, I’m beginning to suspect I could watch Roddy McDowall in ape makeup all day, so we will see….