There aren't all that many endings that would seem to automatically forestall any possibility of a sequel, but surely "destroying the whole world in a massive nuclear explosion" would make that short, elite list. Nevertheless, after Beneath the Planet of the Apes played precisely that card, it fell to that film's screenwriter, Paul Dehn, to come up with some way to fix it. And oh, fix it he did; 1971's Escape from the Planet of the Apes is perhaps my favorite of the four sequels to the 1968 genre masterpiece Planet of the Apes, and it's definitely the one where the series fully commits to just screwing around to see how fucking weird it can get before somebody tells them to stop.

In this particular case, the screwing around involved introducing that hoariest of sci-fi clichés, time travel. Though it was perhaps not so hoary in 1971 as it has become since. In any case, the action has jumped from 3978 AD back to 1973, where three apes who were able to hitch a ride in the late Taylor's space ship, which they recovered from the lake where it sank back in Planet of the Apes and repaired it to the point that it was spaceworthy again, somewhere in the not-terribly-long gap between the beginning of the first film and the end of the second (strict adherence to established series continuity is not a major concern of this screenplay). When Earth exploded, the resultant shock wave threw the space travelers back in time, to the year after Taylor departed the planet in the first place. We don't learn any of that for a little while; indeed, director Don Taylor stages the film's opening specifically to create a sense of mystery over what's going on. The opening shot echoes the opening shot of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, staring at the waves crashing in on a beach that could exist anywhere in history, from the primordial shores before life existed, up until the dead sands of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. And certainly, our expectation is that it will be the latter given that we presumably know we're watching a Planet of the Apes movie, which is why it's such a fun surprise when that opening shot is invaded by a 1970s-era helicopter. A similar little surprise comes a few minutes later, when the three astronauts who clamber out of the spacecraft take off their helmets, and we get to see the simian faces of chimpanzee scientists Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), Zira (Kim Hunter), and Milo (Sal Mineo, in the last feature film of his career).

The resultant film is easily the strangest film in the series, and a good candidate for the strangest studio-made genre film of the 1970s. Just in terms of its tonal variety, it's a grab bag like nothing else in the franchise. The Planet of the Apes films tend towards a fairly consistent level of sober gravity, with their foreboding sense of mystery and their famously bleak endings and their astonishing levels of violence, for what otherwise play like goofy pulp sci-fi adventure stories. Escape... has all of those things, including what I'd be inclined to call the most distressing single violent act in the whole franchise; but it also has broad, blowsy satire, wacky sitcom-level comic routines, and a largely bubbly, bright tone for a substantial majority of its running time. In between the horrifying murders, you understand.

I am, in good conscience, not at all sure that this comes even close to making Escape... a "good" movie, and even if it is "good", that's in large part because of how much it's in love with its own kitsch. Every one of the five original Planet of the Apes films, even the straight-faced and deeply serious first one, has been accused with more or less fairness of being campy; Escape... is unique among them for celebrating that campiness. Among the many elements of American society that the film sees fit to satirise, it takes on celebrity culture, with Cornelius and Zira - Milo has by this point been strangled to death by a gorilla, accompanied by an "artistic" montage of screaming animals that doesn't work - being toasted as the most fascinating new figures in America, beloved by the media and followed obsessively, and it's here more than anywhere else that the film plows right into the corny excesses of comedy that was already a bit dated by '71, and is all the more ridiculous from having Kim Hunter in an ape mask at the center of it all. And everything here, but especially the costumes the apes are stuffed into, and Jerry Goldsmith's fluffy comic score, are a burbling cauldron of over-the-hill '60s psychedelia for the squares, making the whole thing utterly ludicrous and kitschy. As God is my witness, I can't tell if this is deliberate or not, though I refuse to believe that at least Goldsmith wasn't consciously making a joke - you don't go from the atonal percussion of Planet of the Apes (or even the psychedelic funk of this films opening credits) to this without having a very deliberate reason for it.

This does mean that, in practice, I'm not at all sure if Escape... is a good movie or a so-bad-it's good movie for a substantial portion of its running time. Taylor's direction is certainly more eager to play up the wackiness of the material than seems entirely necessary; it's a visually flat and tonally shrill movie in the way that a lot of comedies from around that period could be. What leads me to decide that this mostly works is that the somewhat dopey comedy allows the non-comic material to land with a great deal more unexpected force. When nasty scientist Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) gets Zira drunk on "grape juice plus" to trick her into sharing her secrets, it's a trite sitcom conceit. When the payoff from that same moment is Zira, dosed with sodium pentothol, blithely recalling all of the torture she's perpetrated on humans of the future, it's queasy and bone-chilling. She's the one we like; I can't speak for anybody, but she's been my favorite character in three out of three films now, less prim and stuck-up than Cornelius, and for her to dreamily talk about butchering living bodies just to see what would happen is as horrible and nasty a trick as the Planet of the Apes series has played on us. And I'd add to that the moment when a tape loop of her stopping short from saying "dissection" is played, with Hunter's voice repeating "dissec-dissec-dissec-dissec" like a bunch of tiny stabbing knives, which is maybe even more distressing, because we can see in Hunter's face through the make prosthetic how mortified Zira is, too.

The three performances of the apes do a great deal to carry us through the weaker parts of the script - Mineo's role is tiny as hell, but he does excellent things, and immediately feels as comfortable with the body language and facial expressions required of him as his co-stars - but the experience of the film is very much like that of Beneath...: the first hour isn't nearly as good as the third act, and the whole film takes a giant step up. Basically, Escape... gets more impressive the more it embraces the nihilism central to the Apes ethos; we always had to guess that the bottom was going to fall out, and it very much does, as Cornelius and Zira end up running from the U.S. government, aided by the boring human scientists Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman) and Stephanie Branton (Natalie Trundy), and the ebullient human circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban), whose arrival roughly 25 minutes from the end is the point where the film transitions to "at least better than the reheated leftovers from last time" to "actually a pretty great" sequel, as the film's tonal balance becomes smoother, with the kindness and decency of Cornelius and Zira is contrasted more gently with the sweaty tension of the chase, and the increasing violence that finally erupts in the cruelest sequence in any film in the franchise to date, one that perhaps goes too far in pursuit of the grey-faced bleakness that ends all of these movies (my mother, otherwise a hugely enthusiastic fan of the series, refuses to watch Escape... because of one particular death), but both Hunter and McDowall are so perfect in these moments, exuding a sense of pain and despair that's powerful and fundamentally non-human in important ways, that I think it falls on the side of tragedy rather than viciousness. Besides which, it sets up what I believe to be the first time loop narrative in sci-fi cinema - at least, the first one that takes place at the level of a series, rather than an individual film - and that revelation that the sequel we've been watching is also a prequel gives the final sequence a "whoa" moment that puts the series three-for-three in ending on a splendid high note. I mean, definitely not the godawful optical effect to make a baby chimp move back and forth and back and forth - that's just tacky, cheap shit - but if you can overlook the fact that the final shot is a trainwreck, the ending of Escape from the Planet of the Apes is marvelously expansive. You've got to hand it to a series that wants to be a century-spanning epic even as the money grows tighter, and that sense of ambitions far beyond the narrowness of its production budget (there's a reason we only see three apes and a lot of generic office interiors) is enough to make this film far more impressive to me than almost any other piece of early-'70s sci-fi.

Reviews in this series
Planet of the Apes (Schaffner, 1968)
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (Post, 1970)
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (Taylor, 1971)
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (Thompson, 1972)
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (Thompson, 1973)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Wyatt, 2011)
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Reeves, 2014)
War for the Planet of the Apes (Reeves, 2017)