The ending of Beneath the Planet of the Apes seemed to preclude any sequels and, despite the financial success of the first two films, the budget for a third movie had been slashed. The producers of this film series had to think creatively. The result, while far from the equal of the 1968 original, stands head and shoulders above any of the other sequels, re-introducing the concept of character development and semi-intelligent writing back into the series. Sure, the audience is asked to accept a premise that, when you follow the logic of the first two films, is staggeringly ridiculous, but once you get past that, the story moves along relatively well.
It seems that three apes from the first two movies, including Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter), found the spacecraft that originally brought the astronaut Taylor to the future and somehow figured out how to get it working and fly it back to their past, our present day. Considering that the apes had something approximating early 19th century technology during the first two films, this is one hell of a logical leap to swallow. At that stage, the apes wouldn’t even have a simian Jules Verne writing about space travel, much less the science to do so. Once you set that little issue aside, however, the movie proceeds without insulting your intelligence too badly.
What gives the film a sense of freshness lacking in Beneath the Planet of the Apes is the simple inversion of the concept from the original, casting the apes as the fish out of water in the human world. Naturally, the military men who greet the spacecraft are stunned when the helmets come off to reveal three chimps, Cornelius, Zira and Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo), the “genius” who figured out the spaceship. The primatologists assigned to study them, Lewis (Bradford Dillman) and Stevie (Natalie Trundy), are equally floored when the apes begin responding to their basic intelligence tests by speaking in perfect English.
Escape starts with a light tone as the apes are first treated like celebrities, giving the film a chance to have fun with the whole notion of fame through the eyes from someone who’s never even experienced it from the outside. The film takes a darker turn as the President’s science advisor, Dr. Hasslein (Eric Braeden), uncovers the truth about the earth’s future that Cornelius and Zira represent. When it’s learned that Zira is pregnant, Hasslein concludes that the birth must be prevented and the apes sterilized to stop the future domination of the human race. I wonder if the spooky parallels between the President’s Commision that decides to follow his advice and the Wansee Conference were intentional.
As light and fun as the movie is, Escape does suffer from the some serious logic problems. Discarding the premise of the apes recovering the spaceship and getting it running again, the biggest issue is with the character of Otto Hasslein. For the President’s chief science advisor, he acts like more like the Cassandra-in-chief than a scientist, responding out of fear rather than curiosity or a desire to learn. And somehow I don’t think the President’s science advisor has such broad authority to order troops around that Hasslein displays here. It’s too bad, because he’s an interesting character, doing evil things for what he sees as the long term good of the human race. It’s a little chilling to see an American official acting more like Reinhard Heydrich than a civil servant.
On the plus side, Montalban gives Armando a warm, humanistic personality that perfectly suits the character.
Escape is far from the equal of the original, but the freshened approach to the premise, attention to character details and, of course, the welcome return of Roddy McDowall, make it the only sequel that even approaches the quality of the first Planet of the Apes.