How do you make a sequel to a film that not only kills off every character from the previous film but also blows up the entire planet specifically to end the franchise? If you’re screenwriter Paul Dehn, you slide into prequel mode with an unlikely time travel plot and keep the budget down by setting it in modern times with only two actors in ape makeup. The resulting film, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, has no business existing, but it’s one of the best in the series thanks to the chemistry between main apes Zira and Cornelius (Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall) and a charming story that still ends on a downer note, a recurring theme in the Apes franchise.
The story begins with three apes crashing into the sea thanks to scientist chimp Milo (a sadly underused Sal Mineo) repairing Charlton Heston’s ship from the first film. After soldiers bring the apes to the zoo and give tgem intelligence tests, Milo is promptly murdered by a gorilla, Zira spills the beans about where they came from to a couple of sympathetic scientists, and the apes become the toast of the town after speaking out publicly to a government commission. Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden), whose time travel theory kicked off the events of the first film, has suspicions about the couple and finds out the future of humanity after getting Zira drunk on wine and secretly recording an interview with her. He is horrified to discover that Zira is pregnant and decides to murder the couple before she gives birth.
Escape has the only legitimately fun, uplifting moments in the Apes series, thanks to Dehn taking scenes from the original novel and flipping them, with the apes being a novelty to mankind instead of the other way around, showing off their swinging fashions, giving speeches, and generally enjoying their time on the town. However, because this is an Apes film, it needs to end with everything going to shit, and that’s exactly what happens when Cornelius accidentally murders someone for calling Zira’s baby a monkey (a massive insult to them). They go on the lam, Zira gives birth, they meet up with circus ringmaster Armando (Ricardo Montalban, who steals every scene he’s in), and finally hide out on an abandoned ship. Hasslein finds them, repeatedly shoots Zira and her newborn baby (who Zira tosses into the water), and finally gets shot by Cornelius. Then a sniper shoots Cornelius, and Zira crawls over to die next to her husband. The film ends in Armando’s zoo, where we discover that Zira did the ol’ switcheroo with her baby, who repeatedly says “mama” after Armando walks away.
As far as the original Apes pentalogy goes, it’s a tough pick between this and its follow-up Conquest for the best of the sequels. It’s a great film that gives us a proper sendoff for two of the series’ best-loved characters and introduces one of the best villains of the franchise with Otto Hasslein, who sees murdering Zira and Cornelius as his own version of the “would you go back in time and kill Hitler” question. It makes sense that after the disastrous Tim Burton film, 20th Century Fox would essentially remake this film to reboot the franchise. It’s a sequel that you can go into cold and still enjoy, as everything you need to know about the previous films is described in detail by our protagonists. It’s funny, thoughtful, touching, and depressing…everything you could want in an Apes film.