Thursday, May 6, 2010
Escape from the Planet of the Apes
The first time I watched Escape from the Planet of the Apes I expressed my disappointment with the movie to a couple of friends who had kindly sat through the whole thing with me.
Here we had the goofy spectacle of Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall, made up as apes, parading around dressed in the height of 1970s fashion and bantering as if they were actually the stars of an alternate-reality sequel to The Thin Man. How could that possibly go wrong? But when I lamented that I felt let down, my friends started laughing at me.
“What’s so funny?” I asked. “I’m just disappointed in the movie, that’s all.”
“Yeah,” said one of my associates (who, due to a back problem, walked in an awkward, shuffling gait, much like a slower version of McDowall’s monkey walk), “but just listen to yourself. You’re disappointed in THE THIRD PLANET OF THE APES MOVIE.”
Okay, so she had a point, even if she did walk a bit like a monkey. It’s probably unwise to invest too much hope in dubious cinematic properties such as Planet of the Apes sequels, but after the lunatic gusto of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, I had expected further heights of tasteless, demented apocalyptic fantasy.
I suppose you can only blow up the Earth so many times. Naturally, that’s a hard act to follow, and this movie can’t help but appear modest and slight next to the messy, overreaching zeal of its predecessor. Gone are the weeping monkey messiahs and mind-reading cultists; now we have cutesy fish-out-of-water antics and boringly sinister bureaucrats. Transporting Cornelius and Zira, two human-loving ape scientists, back into the present day was perhaps the most sensible way to continue the series, but after watching the entire Earth explode, there’s an inevitable sense of let-down at seeing the planet back in business as usual. Oh yes, this place. Again. Yawn. I only care when it is in flames.
But in retrospect, all we’ve really done is trade a big apocalypse for a little one, and it’s hard to say which is more painful. At the end of the second film, we see all life extinguished. At the end of the third, we see only a handful of deaths, each depicted with singular brutality. A newborn ape swaddled in a blanket is shot, repeatedly, on the deck of an abandoned oil tanker. Cornelius and Zira fare no better, each murdered in turn. When Cornelius is shot, he stares into the camera and emits a hideous blood-bubble wheeze as damning as a dying curse. And then plummets from a great height, his body crushing against the deck of the tanker, which emits a hollow thud.
Director Don Taylor films the whole sequence as a series of sharp angles flying from different directions, giving the impression of being caught in crossfire. It’s a well-wrought scene—one of the few examples of sure direction in the series since the first film, in fact. But what really gives the scene its punch is the sheer shock value of moving so rapidly from light comedy to grisly tragedy. We were having fun just a few minutes ago, weren’t we? Now every major character in the series is lying in a bloody heap. You might as well blow up the planet now, for all I care anymore.
One of the distinguishing features of the first two Ape movies was their willingness to employ completely unlikable protagonists. Sure, you felt a bit sorry for Heston’s Taylor, stuck in that zoo so far from home, but his volatile misanthropy hardly made him endearing. By contrast, Cornelius and Zira are pure charm. Their borscht belt marriage routine—“Does he talk?” one person asks of Cornelius, who replies, nodding towards his wife, “Only when she lets me”—is like something your grandparents would say at their 50th wedding anniversary, which helps explains the appeal of Cornelius and Zira. They’re corny, but sweet.
So obviously, they must die. Because this film, like its predecessors, is about the death of everything decent and kind and beautiful and innocent.
Some might argue that the film’s final scene—which reveals that Cornelius and Zira’s baby did not die with his parents, but rather was switched with another chimp in a traveling circus—contains a glimmer of hope. This being an Ape film, I’m not inclined to credit it with any hope for the future. This series paints with purest, blackest fatalism, envisioning history as a series of mass graves, each layered on top of each other like geographical strata. There is no hope for the future because there is no future.
The one promise the film makes to the future is that more suffering awaits. The last thing we see in the film is Cornelius and Zira's son in a cage at the circus, crying out “Mama” over and over while the image repeats on a loop. As the screen turns black, all we hear is that mewling sound, like a toothpick jabbed into your eardrum. The image is far too upsetting, too creepy, to really work as a bright spot in all of this gloom. Besides, this little guy could be the catalyst for the end of human civilization. Try not to get too attached to him.
Similarly, the deaths of Cornelius and Zira are not as easy to read as you first think. The man responsible for the deaths is Dr. Otto Hasslein, a man described—rather vaguely—as the president’s science advisor. At first, he seems an easy choice for our villain, a stern, angular man who is far too calmly zealous to be trustworthy. He even carries a secret recording device in his cigarette case (just another day in Nixon’s America!). Anyone who hides recording devices in everyday objects is clearly a bad person.
Yet Hasslein nonetheless cares deeply about saving the human race—an odd trait for any movie villain, I would think. He even gives an impassioned speech about the dangers of delaying action in the face of worldwide catastrophes ranging from pollution to overpopulation to time-traveling apes. “How much time has the world got?” he rages. “Somebody has to care!” What sort of movie puts its moral in the mouth of its chief villain? Dammit, this is supposed to be a stupid movie. We’re not supposed to be getting this kind of ambiguity in a silly Planet of the Apes sequel with Ricardo fucking Montalban in it.
As vicious as the death sequence may be, the film does leave open the provocative possibility that it was necessary. The survival of Cornelius and Zira could accelerate the demise of humanity, just as the existence of their offspring might well damn us all. I realize this series takes a dim view of the human race, but once you accept that we should survive as a species, you have to consider the possibility that these charming chimps and their baby must die. Not only do we have to contend with all that ugliness, we have to consider the chance that it was necessary for our collective survival.
Which brings us back to the troubling question that has plagued me while watching these movies: is their message simply that the human race cannot survive? Or rather that it should not? Misanthropy is too gentle a word for what this film feels about humanity. And hey, why not go for a bit of despair once in a while? Frankly, when you consider the myriad ways our species has flirted with death, who wouldn’t want to unleash an uncompromising tirade against our endless capacity for murderous folly? And while I don’t want to celebrate pessimism for its own sake (which can be just as mindless as optimism), a hopeful ending to this mess would be an insult. No one goes looking for a good slap in the face, but sometimes that's the best we deserve.