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The unlikely saga of Escape From The Planet Of The Apes began with a telegram from Arthur P. Jacobs, producer of the original Apes film series, to Paul Dehn, the screenwriter who penned Beneath The Planet Of The Apes. It simply read “Apes exist. Sequel required.” To create another Apes film would be no mean feat because the end of Beneath was designed to end the series forever. Thankfully, Dehn was an inventive author and the third Apes film not only continued the series in an inspired manner but also found unexpected ways to build out the series’ mythology.

Escape‘s storyline begins on present-day Earth: the capsule of a spaceship turns up on the California shore and the military is shocked to discover it contains talking chimpanzee-humanoids Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and Zira (Kim Hunter). It is revealed that these two utilized a  repaired spaceship to escape the events of Beneath, traveling backwards in time to warn those in the past about the doom that comes from their current course of action.

Cornelius and Zira charm the public and find allies in sympathetic scientists Dr. Dixon (Bradford Dillman) and Dr. Benton (series regular Natalie Trundy)… but their sudden appearance inspires the sinister suspicions of presidential advisor Dr. Hasslein (Eric Braeden). The futuristic duo soon find themselves threatened by Hasslein’s paranoid mindset, particularly when he discovers Zira is pregnant. This sets the stage for a third act that moves into darker terrain as it weaves in the usual political and social commentary of the series.

Escape From The Planet Of The Apes is a fascinating entry in the series for more than one reason. It maintains the heady sci-fi concepts of the past films in its themes and dialogues but strips back the visual component of the genre, replacing post-apocalyptic landscapes with a recognizable earthly setting and a predominantly human cast of characters, With this setup, Dehn is able to make Cornelius and Zira, members of the privileged caste of the past films, into the alien minority that is regarded with suspicion like the human heroes of the past two films.

It also forces the viewer to directly confront the negative side of humanity through the actions of Hasslein, who functions as a human equivalent of Dr. Zaius: both use poise, sharp intellectual skills and a grasp of conservative social thinking to manipulate others into following their paranoid, hateful mindset. The fact that he is a government figure forces the audience to confront how the reach of government agencies can be used to persecute “the other” in society under a flimsy guise of national security concerns. Counterpoint to his unfortunate example is provided by the character of Armando (Ricardo Montalban), a carnival zookeeper whose ‘animal rights’ bent presents him as the film’s voice of liberal, anti-establishment concerns.

Best of all, Dehn keeps the film from becoming a preachy treatise by couching all these thematic concerns in the guise of pop storytelling: suspense is generated by how the apes reveal their abilities and intellect to the humans, humor is generated by how the apes are received by different sectors of American society and the storyline deftly shifts into a third act that becomes a thriller capped with an effectively deployed twist ending. The real world setting adds a new layer of gravity to the proceedings overall.  It’s also worth noting that later in the film elements of backstory are revealed via the two heroes that flesh out our understanding of the connection between the world we know and the one presented in the first two Apes films.

The pop storytelling feel is aided by tidy direction from Don Taylor, a journeyman whose c.v. includes cult faves like Damien: Omen II and The Final Countdown.  His work provides a slick, well-crafted frame for the script and performances, aided in no small part by nice ‘scope-format cinematography by Aldrich film vet Joseph Biroc and a pop-tinged score by Jerry Goldsmith. Taylor’s staging of the film’s suspenseful climax is particularly effective and at times emotionally wrenching.

Finally, the performances seal the deal here. Dehn’s script leans heavily on characterization and dialogue and the filmmakers have brought in an ace cast of character actors to bring it to life. McDowell and Hunter are, of course, the twin anchors of the ensemble, covering everything from light humor to searing drama with skill – all under heavy character makeup. Dillman and Trundy bring charm and warmth to the human side of things, as does Montalban. and Braeden is quietly chilling as the ideologically-driven villain. Look out also for William Windom, who does effective work in a president role that is more dimensional than usual.

In short, Escape From The Planet Of The Apes is surprisingly effective for the third film in a series, finding new dimensions to core series concerns by reversing roles and adding new layers to the film’s mythology.  The fact that it achieves all this on a smaller, more intimate scale reliant on traditional storytelling makes it all the more impressive.  It was also a hit, thus guaranteeing that neither Jacobs nor Dehn would be able to let the Apes saga rest, at least for a few more films.