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Posts Tagged ‘Roddy McDowell’

It’s always slightly disconcerting when two films in the same genre end up bearing very similar titles – I’ve written in the past of the potential confusion inherent in the existence of The Day the Earth Caught Fire and The Day the Sky Exploded, not to mention The Land That Time Forgot and Creatures the World Forgot – and this is before we come to films in the same genre, with similar titles, and weirdly similar premises as well. Pay attention, this gets complicated: Shirley Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House, adapted for the screen as The Haunting, while Richard Matheson wrote Hell House, which he adapted for the screen as The Legend of Hell House. Haunting? Legend? Hill House? Hell House? The what of which?

Full disclosure: it wasn’t until quite recently that I finally saw either of the films in question, and prior to that I was genuinely prone to getting them mixed up – not that it made much difference, given how little I actually knew about either of them beyond the fact they’re about misguided investigations of properties with baleful supernatural properties. Having now seen the Matheson movie, directed by John Hough, I can at least bang on about that with more of a chance of looking like I know what I’m talking about.

The movie opens with physicist Lionel Barrett (played by Clive Revill) receiving a curious challenge from the millionaire Rudolph Deutsch (Roland Culver) – Deutsch will reward Barrett handsomely if he can finally resolve the question of whether the human personality can survive after death. According to Deutsch, there is only one place where this has not been refuted – Belasco House, once the home of an insane, perverted millionaire, which has stood empty for decades. A previous attempt to investigate spiritual disturbances in the mansion led to the death of all but one of the people concerned – it has become, in Barrett’s words, ‘the Mount Everest of haunted houses’.

Assisting Barrett in his mission are a pair of mediums – one of them, Fischer (Roddy McDowell), is the sole survivor of the previous investigation, the other (Pamela Franklin) is younger and more idealistic. Also joining them is Barrett’s wife (Gayle Hunnicutt), who is rather sceptical about the whole project.

Well, Belasco House turns out to be an imposing Gothic pile, complete with bricked-up windows (could this have been to make it easier to film the interior scenes on a sound-stage) and a pre-recorded message of welcome from the last owner, Emeric Belasco. Everyone takes this in their stride remarkably well, to be honest. Barrett wants to press on with holding a seance almost as soon as they arrive, despite Fischer’s misgivings in particular: he is absolutely certain that the house has agency of its own and will actively try to kill them, tainted as it is by the succession of atrocities Belasco carried out. ‘How did it all end?’ asks Mrs Barrett, rather naively. ‘If it had all ended, we would not be here,’ replies Fischer, darkly…

You normally know where you stand when it comes to British horror movies from the early 1970s (this film was released in 1973). Hammer were in decline by this point, making a succession of increasingly lurid and dubious pictures, Amicus were in the midst of their series of portmanteau films, Tigon were just about to depart the stage – as producers, if not distributors – with The Creeping Flesh. The thing about The Legend of Hell House is that it doesn’t feel like or resemble any of those – it may be down to the presence of an American screenwriter (Matheson) and producer (James H Nicholson), but this does feel more like an American movie from the same period – where British horror films always have a tendency towards extravagance and even camp, this is much more sober and naturalistic.

The attempt at a kind of faux-documentary realism is propped up by a series of captions establishing exactly when the various scenes occur, and also by an opening card, supposedl quoting a ‘Psychic Consultant to European Royalty’ (oh, yeah) in whose opinion the events of the film ‘could well be true’. ‘Could well be true’? What the hell is that supposed to mean? Talk about hedging your bets. Nevertheless, the film’s attempts at a kind of eerie restraint work rather well, as things slowly begin to happen, to Pamela Franklin’s character in particular. The atmosphere is effectively oppressive. Much of this is due to an unsettling radiophonic score – not really music, but hardly ambient sound, either – provided by British electronica pioneers Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire. Their work here is every bit as good as you would expect.

In the end, though, the film goes off on a slightly different path, and one which oddly recalls the plot of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (originally broadcast six months before the release of this film). Barrett, though a physicist, is open-minded about the existence of the supernatural and eventually unveils his ghost-busting machine, the operation of which performs a sort of technological exorcism of the surrounding area (the patent is filed somewhere between Carnacki’s electric pentacle and the Ghostbusters’ proton packs). Nothing wrong with a plot point like this in principle, but the problem is that it actually seems to work – nothing destroys the atmosphere and menace of a haunting like rendering it vulnerable to this sort of occult hoover. The film has to go through some fairly outrageous contortions to accommodate this and still provide a decent climax – it does so, thanks to a very odd cameo by Michael Gough and Roddy McDowell choosing just the right moment to go for it with his performance. It’s still a bit mad, though, effectively revolving around a pair of prosthetic legs and some armchair psychology, and the creepy atmosphere is perhaps a bit too thoroughly dispelled.

Still, this is still a notably effective horror movie, in many ways anticipating the way the genre would go towards the end of the decade. Performances, direction and soundtrack are all good, and if some of the plotting is a bit suspect, Matheson at least provides some very good dialogue, particularly in the opening part of the film. This is probably not the greatest haunted house movie ever made, but it is a memorable and effective one.

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I have to report another outbreak of the Twilight phenomenon, in and around cinemas as far as the eye can see. Now, as you can imagine, this is not without consequences. One of them is that – if all I hear of the plot of the new film is correct – I shall have to retire my Twilight limerick, which runs thusly:

‘There once was a vampire named Edward

Reluctant to lead his girl bed-ward

When she found herself faced

With a boyfriend so chaste

She said ‘Maybe he simply can’t get wood.’

(Farewell, good and faithful servant.)

The other is that, as the new movie is infesting the majority of theatres in town, and many of the others are occupied with precipitously-released Christmas children’s films, there isn’t really anything on worth going to see at the cinema (yes, this from the man who spent money watching The Three Musketeers, Immortals and The Future). And so I have decided to take this opportunity to snip off a particular dangling thread and conclude my look at one of my favourite SF movie series with a review of J Lee Thompson’s 1973 movie Battle for the Planet of the Apes.

A dangling loose end is perhaps a not inappropriate metaphor for this least impressive cinematic product of the Planet of the Apes phenomenon. Opening with a brisk recap of the previous film-and-a-bit, it finds North America in the early 21st century in agrarian post-holocaust mode: the ape revolution fomented by Caesar (Roddy McDowell) has indeed culminated in nuclear war (apparently on a fairly limited scale) and now the survivors, both human and ape, are living in peace, though life is not without tensions – the humans are uneasy with the dominance of the apes, while the militaristic gorillas are chafing under Caesar’s rule…

Apropos of pretty much nothing (but they have to get the plot started somehow) Caesar’s human aide Macdonald (Austin Stoker, playing the brother of Hari Rhodes’ character from the previous movie) persuades him to mount an expedition to the ruins of Los Angeles in search of secret documents that may reveal the destiny of the planet (relics from the third film in the series). However, in doing so they attract the attention of xenophobic and paranoid humans also living in the ruins.

Not entirely unexpectedly (but they have to get a climax from somewhere) the humans assume the expedition’s intentions were hostile and decide to launch a counterattack in force against Caesar’s settlement. Matters are, inevitably, complicated by an ill-timed grab for power by gorilla leader Aldo (Claude Akins).

Battle for the Planet of the Apes is perhaps not quite as unremittingly awful as some reviewers would have you believe, but compared to the quality of most of the other films in the series it is a deeply unimpressive offering, built around sentimental melodrama and underpowered action where the other films had genuinely interesting ideas and engaging characters to drive them along.

What’s particularly galling is that, at every step of the film’s production, the makers seem to have chosen the least interesting, least challenging option. The series’ main screenwriter, Paul Dehn, had his concept for the movie rejected and was replaced by John and Joyce Corrington, whose work is only competent at best – the plot is uninspired, and while some of their dialogue raises a smile – ‘We may be irradiated, but at least we’re still active,’ says chief bad guy Severn Darden, enjoying a promotion from assistant villain in the previous film – some of it is… well, look, I just feel sorry for Paul Stevens, playing pacifist human Mendez, who at one point gets the choice assignment of delivering the following monologue: ‘This bloody chain reaction has got to stop. A destroys B, B destroys C, C destroys A and is destroyed by D who destroys E. Before anyone knows where they are there won’t be anyone left to know anything, anywhere.’ Er – yeah. No wonder he doesn’t get taken along for the war.

Paul Dehn’s original treatment for the movie – or at least something claiming to be it – is, inevitably, available on t’internet, and while still flawed the tone of the piece is much more recognisably part of the same series. Knowing this was to be the last film, Dehn set out to close the circle of the series by showing the beginnings of the situation to be found in the first film – the on-line treatment features the nuclear attack that destroys Los Angeles, the origins of the Forbidden Zone and the human mutant society within it, and the human population being rendered mute through primitive surgery. Pretty heavy stuff, and given how young the films’ core audience was by this point perhaps it’s understandable why the producers shied away from it.

Even so, some of this material survived in a toned-down form in the Corringtons’ script, most notably in a number of scenes in the ruined city where it is revealed that the humans still have one nuclear weapon left: a very special one, which may explain their very reverent attitude towards it. This got filmed, but was then cut from the final movie on the grounds that it wasn’t really relevant to the plot and was simply a superfluous exercise in i-dotting.

So we’re left with a weary runaround, with only Roddy McDowell’s strong performance, a few other familiar faces in the supporting cast, and the trademark rotten continuity (no more than a decade or so seems to have elapsed since the previous film, yet someone claims to have lived in the post-apocalyptic settlement for twenty-seven years, for one thing) to really show this is part of the same series as the other films. On its own merits, Battle for the Planet of the Apes is a negligible, feeble little film, with nothing to suggest the real merits of the series which it represents. And viewed as a part of that series, it is inevitably a terrible disappointment – it’s difficult to imagine any future movie with the Apes name on it plumbing quite such depths of pointlessness.

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By any reasonably objective standard, Gary Nelson’s The Black Hole is an extravagantly bad film, combining some of the worst excesses of two separate SF film-making lineages. And yet it is one I find it very hard to dismiss. I suspect this is partly because I first saw it on its original release, when I was very young, and as a result I have that special fondness for it born of nostalgia. Then, a few years later I bought a second-hand copy of Alan Dean Foster’s novelisation, which I read and re-read many times and which has coloured my perception of the film ever since.

Foster does a huge amount to both expand the story of the film and its characters, and fix some of the more egregious holes in the screenplay, and watching the film again now I’m often struck by just how much of what I remember of it isn’t on the screen at all – he puts in a romance between two of the lead characters, for instance, of which the only sign in the finished film is a very chaste handclasp. So I have to be careful when attempting to summarise the plot, to only include stuff which is definitely on screen.

Some time in the future, the research starship Palomino is returning to Earth when it encounters the black hole of the title. But the crew of six (two pilots, two scientists, a journalist, and a cute robot) find the hole makes less of a demand on their attentions than the presence very close to it of a giant starship from a previous generation: the Cygnus, presumed lost for decades. The Cygnus seems immune to the titanic gravity of the hole, but the Palomino is not and during its investigation the smaller ship suffers severe damage to its life-support systems.

The Palomino is forced to dock with the Cygnus in search of replacement parts and the crew discover it is not a dead ship: the original commander, Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell) is still very much alive and in control of a variety of obedient and dangerous-looking robots of his own manufacture. But he seems the perfect host, if a little eccentric, and offers them his hospitality while they carry out repairs. He even offers them the secret of the anti-gravity field which allows him to defy the gravity well of the black hole.

However, mysteries begin to accumulate: the Palomino‘s captain (Robert Forster) witnesses the Cygnus‘s robots apparently carrying out a funeral, for instance. And when Reinhardt reveals his ambition to take his vessel through the black hole into the universe beyond, and one of the original Cygnus robots tells the visitors exactly what befell the original crew, it becomes apparent that they are in very dire straits indeed…

The Black Hole was part of the first wave of big-budget studio SF movies to come out as a result of the massive success of Star Wars, along with other fondly-remembered probably quite bad films like Flash Gordon and Moonraker. It does try to stick closer to the Star Wars template than most of the others, though – the three leads consist of a wily old spaceship captain, a demure and slightly posh woman, and a young hotheaded pilot, all played by relative unknowns, while the other key roles are filled by distinguished character actors (Schell, Ernest Borgnine, Anthony Perkins). The laser gun battles of the third act and John Barry’s score are also aping Lucas’s baby.

And yet, at the same time The Black Hole is also looking back to an older tradition of cinema SF: the austere, brooding movie-of-ideas, as exemplified by 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is not a bright or particularly colourful movie, jokes are fairly thin on the ground, and Reinhardt in particular is much given to out-loud existential pondering about the nature of the universe. You might even say it was a bit morbid and pretentious.

The two styles smash together and produce something very peculiar: a movie which tries to get the science right and include mature, dark ideas, but in which the most memorable and lively characters are a bunch of robots (voiced, uncredited, by Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens) and which is largely resolved by laser gun fights. (The most moving scene in the film is not the death of any of the human characters but the final shutdown of one of the robot characters, which should tell you something.)

This in itself would not necessarily make The Black Hole a bad film, but the extent to which the storyline unravels in the final third (things just happen, for no adequately explored reason except that they advance or resolve the plot) does. Why does Reinhardt’s hench-bot suddenly decide to kill one of the visitors? Why is Reinhardt so bothered about silencing his guests, given he’s planning to leave for another universe anyway? Why does the Cygnus‘s attempt to travel through the hole result in such rapid and disastrous failure? None of this is really gone into in any detail.

It’s particularly bemusing as, to begin with, this looks like a lavish movie which is making a genuine attempt to get the science right – the zero-G conditions in effect on the Palomino are well-achieved (one of things not explicitly touched upon is why they have gravity on the Cygnus). But by the conclusion, while the movie is no less lavish, the scientific accuracy has degenerated to pitiable levels: the interior of the black hole is a peach-coloured cloud within which characters can float around, unencumbered by space suits, without sustaining any apparent harm.

And having gone into full-on kid-friendly laser battle mode twenty minutes or so earlier, the conclusion sees the movie snapping back in the other direction and having its own go at the ‘star gate’ sequence from 2001. Except that here it’s doomy rather than transcendental with a strong, yet baffling, religious element: the black hole is a gateway to hell, apparently, which is ruled over by… well, let’s just say it makes about as much sense as anything else.

(Foster fixes all this stuff in the novelisation, rather impressively, at the cost of completely changing the end of the story and making it considerably less conventional. One is slightly surprised he was allowed to get away with it.)

The cast do the best they can with all of this, although the dourly intellectual tone of the proceedings means that no-one can really give an eye-catching performance except Schell (that said, McDowell is predictably good as the voice of the epigram-loving robot). The production designs are excellent when it comes to the ships and the friendly robots, less impressive when it comes to the opposition (a bit too obviously action-figurey). And I do have a very soft spot for John Barry’s score. He’s trying to be John Williams and really not managing it, but the opening theme has a sweeping majesty to it, even if the music for the action sequences is ponderous when it should be rousing. Even here, though, his contribution should not be dismissed: that the climactic duel of the robots works even as well as it does is almost entirely down to Barry’s music.

I know this film is really not very good. I know the reason why I am the only person I know who can’t see the strings holding up the robots is that I’m the only one who isn’t actively looking for them. I know this film is the result of a collision between two different sensibilities, and that the results are not especially accomplished in any department beyond possibly the production designs. But first I saw this movie when I wasn’t engaging with films with my brain, but solely with my heart and my imagination, and it managed to carve out a place in my affections that it has never quite lost. That’s not much of a reason for liking The Black Hole as much as I do, but it’s the only one I can offer.

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Constant readers may recall the fulsome praise I recently lavished upon the 1971 movie Escape from the Planet of the Apes, but unfortunately I cannot be so generous about J Lee Thompson’s follow up from the very next year, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. However, it is a film not without numerous points of interest: permit me to explain.

In defiance of ever-dwindling budgets, this film finds the ongoing story jumping forward to the ominously near-future year of 1991, and an America transformed. Viral plague in the year 1983 has wiped out most household pets and the monkeys originally used as substitutes have in turn been replaced by full-sized apes – chimps, gorillas and orang-utans. The apes occupy the lowest position in a society basically dependent on slave labour to function. The slave apes are horribly mistreated and kept in line by brutal police in jackboots – hell, the police are basically wearing Gestapo uniforms. Whatever virtues this film has, subtlety is not amongst them.

Arriving in a grey and impersonal Los Angeles are circus owner Armando and his ape ward Caesar, played by Ricardo Montalban and Roddy McDowell respectively. They have a dreadful secret, which they nevertheless share with the audience with unseemly haste and via some painfully obvious expository dialogue – alone amongst apes, Caesar has the power of speech, the result of his parents being time-travellers from the ape-dominated 40th century. This faculty would lead to his death were the authorities to learn of it, but just so he understands how awful everything has become Armando has decided to show him a city for the first time. Good plan, Armando. That’s what I’d do. Yeah.

Caesar inevitably loses his cool after being confronted by endless scenes of his brethren being exploited and abused, and draws the attention of the police. Armando surrenders to the cops to cover for Caesar, who infiltrates a shipment of apes arriving for slave conditioning and finds himself the property of the tyrannical governor Breck (Don Murray). Although some of the other humans are sympathetic to the plight of the apes, most notably Breck’s aide MacDonald (Hari Rhodes), the news of Armando’s death in police custody causes Caesar to vow a terrible revenge against the human civilisation, and he sets about fomenting revolution amongst the apes…

Well, where does one start with this movie? In many ways this is a turning point for the whole franchise, most obviously in that the three previous movies were all genuinely good and possibly even great, while this movie and (to date) everything that’s followed it have all been to some degree disappointing. But it’s also the case that this film is the first to be based solely around writer Paul Dehn’s own characters and ideas rather than those of Pierre Boulle or Rod Serling. Given that Dehn also wrote the previous two movies, you wouldn’t really expect this to be a problem, but where they were interesting because of their scripts, this one is somehow interesting in spite of it.

Possibly it was just Dehn’s misfortune to be writing this, arguably the key movie in the sequence, at a time when the budget cuts were really starting to bite – down to less than $2 million, only a third of that of the original movie. The film has to introduce and sell to the audience a radically-transformed version of American society, a new set of characters, the politicisation of the protagonist, and then an apocalyptic rebellion with epic scenes of violent struggle – and do it all very cheaply and within an 88 minute running time.

As a result the film does seem very rushed and struggles to make all of its ideas really convincing. All the structures of control and slavery we see in this movie have supposedly evolved within only eight years? Hmm. Caesar also only spends about five minutes setting up his revolt (which involves such terrifying acts of sedition as spreading shoe polish on unsuspecting people’s socks) before the secret police track him down (rather easily). Most seriously of all, this is a corny and melodramatic film where nearly every character in the film is a cipher, with but a single trait which they endlessly exhibit, and their behaviour is dictated by the demands of the plot rather than their personalities. The main villain here, Breck, is a cartoon, with nothing like the depth or borderline-sympathy of Hasslein in the previous film. To be fair, Roddy McDowell does his very best with a part that requires him to be mute for large sections of the film, and Caesar’s personal journey is not entirely unconvincing. Hari Rhodes, as the sympathetic human, has to project ‘decency’ a lot and actually does it rather well.

That said, if we’re going to talk about Rhodes’ character, then we have to talk about the politics of this film, which takes us into some odd and slightly uneasy territory. At this point when talking about Conquest I usually mention the South Africa episode of The Goodies. You what? I hear you ask. Well, in South Africa three well-meaning and intelligent guys set out to express their abhorrence of racial prejudice and the apartheid system, which is fair enough, but do so by putting on blackface make-up and affecting ‘yassuh boss’ accents, which to a modern viewer surely seems incredibly racist in its own right.

In the same way, it’s very clear that Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is in some way trying to say things about America’s own history and the Civil Rights movement. It’s surely not a coincidence that Caesar’s only human ally at the end of the film is black – at one point another character suggests it’s only to be expected that MacDonald be sympathetic to the apes – and parallels are made more than once between the ape struggle for freedom and that of African Americans in the past.

So the film is pro-civil rights, which is great, but at the same time it’s an allegory in which the role of black Americans is played by apes. Something about that just makes me extremely uncomfortable – although this may just be my own liberal oversensitiveness, as this film was apparently a huge hit with coloured audiences, many of whom apparently saw it as a fictionalised retelling of some of the race riots which plagued America in the late 1960s.

By the end, of course, one is in the uniquely science-fictional position of rooting for a protagonist whose goal is to bring about the end of civilisation, more-or-less as we know it. The climax sees Caesar addressing MacDonald in the heart of a burning city, with Breck in shackles and at the mercy of a mob of club-wielding apes. Caesar, in the grip of a strangely triumphant rage, prophesies the day when the dominion of man will end and the apes will dominate the Earth, concluding ‘…and that day is upon you now!’ The apes set about beating Breck to death, the film cuts back to a striking wideshot of apes silhouetted in the fires of rebellion, Jerry Goldsmith’s original score crashes in, and one is left in no doubt as to how this will all end: with the twisted world into which Charlton Heston will crashland in the original movie.

However – and this may be the single most glaring problem with this movie – this probably isn’t the climax you’ll have seen. It tested very negatively with the young audience who were the main fans of the franchise at this point and so a horribly obvious and mealy-mouthed alternative was contrived, where Breck is spared and Roddy McDowell provides a new dialogue-track (dubbed over the original closeup, reframed to exclude his mouth) where he declares the apes will be humane and compassionate towards the humans they are violently overthrowing. Er, what? At which point we’re back to the wide-shot of the burning city and Goldsmith’s music, which both now seem rather incongruous. While this version does conclude with the killer line ‘Tonight we have seen the birth of the planet of the apes!’ on the whole I really prefer the uncompromising, unreleased ending.

(I suppose I could also grumble about the way the film fudges the issue of what ultimately causes the collapse of the human civilisation – is it an ape uprising, as the previous film and most of this one has led us to believe? Or is it a nuclear war, as the first two films and some dialogue in the climax here strongly implies? Does the former cause the latter? As I say, it’s a fudge, but then the continuity between these films is almost always ropey.)

It was all downhill from here, anyway, with Paul Dehn’s ideas for the fifth and final movie judged too dark and uncompromising and the assignment being given to other writers. Hamstrung by budgetary and narrative concerns it may be, but Conquest of the Planet of the Apes still has got just enough going on to make it interesting to watch – it’s much more obviously an example of unfulfilled potential than any of the other films in the series. In fact, if I were going to remake a Planet of the Apes film with a blockbuster budget and modern special effects, then… oh, hang on a minute…

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Watching Don Taylor’s 1971 movie Escape from the Planet of the Apes these days, I find myself becoming intellectually aware that to a young audience with a modern sensibility this movie might seem incredibly kitsch and almost impossible to take seriously. Personally I have no such problems – and for this I suppose I have the unusual scheduling policy of UK TV networks in the early 1980s to thank. This is a movie which ultimately goes into some very dark and thoughtful places, and concludes with violence sufficiently graphic to earn it a 12 rating under the modern system, and yet I first saw it in the early 80s as a Saturday tea-time movie. I found it interesting and affecting even then, while my sister was utterly traumatised and left in floods of tears at the ending – which, in an odd way, I would say was a sign the movie really worked.

Anyway. Following the literally earth-shattering conclusion of the previous movie, this second sequel opens with a neat visual joke – the first scene depicts a barren beach with the tide rolling in. This was how the first film ended and the second began, but the nature of this latest installment is instantly signposted when a contemporary helicopter flies into the frame.

For the ongoing story has, for reasons both narrative and budgetary, relocated to present-day California. A spacecraft has landed in the Pacific and is dragged ashore, and the assembled military are startled to find it is crewed by a trio of chimpanzees. Two of them should be familiar to viewers of the previous films, as they are Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and Zira (Kim Hunter), who befriended Charlton Heston’s character, and who have been thrown back in time by the catastrophe at the end of the second film. The third character is basically there as a plot device – a chimp genius (Sal Mineo) responsible for salvaging and relaunching the spaceship despite the numerous and massive implausibilities involved – and, role completed, he is rapidly killed off.  

The wider American public is startled when the intelligence and power of speech possessed by the apes becomes known, but their wit, warmth, and benevolence result in their soon becoming celebrities and feted as such. Elements in the government, however, are rather less well-disposed towards the time travellers. In particular, the President’s scientific advisor, Hasslein (Eric Braeden), develops his own suspicions about the destiny of the planet and the nature and origins of the ape society they have come from. Becoming convinced that Cornelius and Zira’s very existence poses a threat to the human race, Hasslein sets about removing that threat as rapidly and completely as possible…

Beneath the Planet of the Apes was a movie that finished very strongly but was, overall, rather uneven: to my mind, Escape from the Planet of the Apes surpasses it on every level except that of hyperbolic weirdness. Producer Arthur Jacobs’ original plan for the Apes sequels was that they should be built around a succession of startling visual incongruities and innovations, but this movie really abandons that principle – beyond the moment near the beginning where astronauts remove their helmets to reveal they are actually apes, this movie is told in a very straightforward but nevertheless effective (and affecting) way.

About the only thing it has in common with its immediate predecessor is the fact that it’s almost impossible to tell from the first twenty minutes exactly how the climax will play out. The first half of the film is a combination of relatively thoughtful SF and gentle social satire, in some ways mirroring the original movie – we see the apes’ responses to the human society which is as alien to them as the ape society was to Heston’s character in the first movie. That said, Heston’s stoic philosophising is entirely absent, replaced by something milder and more engaging.

As the film goes on the tone grows much darker, with the stakes both personal and epic, and the movie becomes more of an action thriller. All the indignities the apes inflicted on Heston are repaid in full and the protagonists are forced to go on the run from the government. (Ricardo Montalban pops up briefly in this section and turns in another rather operatic performance as a circus owner.) The climax is neither so uncompromising nor so bleak as in the previous film but somehow just as unsettling.

(I suppose you could argue that Escape does share one other thing with Beneath; namely, dodgy continuity. Once again we are told that Taylor’s craft was lost in space due to some kind of accident, which certainly doesn’t tally with the original film. Also, in the first two episodes the origins of the ape civilisation are a mystery to the majority of the population, but here we are told that the anniversary of the overthrow of the human race by their ape slaves is a public holiday for the ape civilisation. Sigh.)

While Beneath the Planet of the Apes these days appears to be a fairly obvious anti-war jeremiad, Escape is a story which functions on a more personal level and is perhaps more involving as a result. That said, it’s arguably just as much a film of its time, with a deeply ambivalent attitude towards the establishment – and given the repeated significance to the plot of various tape recordings, one has to keep reminding oneself this is a pre-Watergate movie.

If the movie does have a wider theme, it’s about destiny and the perils of trying to influence it. Mostly this is articulated through the heavy of the piece, Hasslein, who’s brought to life via a very good performance by Eric Braeden (in his pre-soap opera days). One of the things which raise this film well above the level of a routine runaround is Braeden as Hasslein: he’s clearly the bad guy, inasmuch as he wants to kill Cornelius and Zira, but Braeden (aided by Paul Dehn’s excellent script) brings enough grace notes of thoughtfulness and intelligence to the character to make his motivations entirely understandable. Hasslein is clearly motivated by deeply humane concerns; it’s just that he acts on them with a detachment and dispassion that crosses the line into outright ruthlessness (the novelisation of the film goes even further to make him sympathetic, making him the father of a disabled child). When I watch the film now, I always find myself wondering what I would do if I were in Hasslein’s position: from a certain point of view, he is very clearly in the right throughout.

There are so many good things about Escape from the Planet of the Apes – I haven’t even touched upon Jerry Goldsmith’s funky and groovy score – that I was not surprised, a few years ago, to discover a review somewhere online which rated it more highly than the original film. It doesn’t have the visual ambition or quite the narrative or intellectual strength of the first film, but where it does score heavily is in its breadth and depth of emotional content, and in the strength of the performances throughout. Nothing else bearing the Planet of the Apes name since has come anywhere close to the quality of this film.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 21st October 2004:

‘Somewhere in the universe, there has to be something better than man.’

Two science fiction movies came out in 1968 that both, in their own way, had a huge effect on the genre. The received wisdom appears to be that Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey gave the genre brains and artistic integrity, and that Franklin J Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes gave it box-office clout and mainstream appeal – with the obvious addendum that 2001 is by far the superior and more significant picture.

Well, I’m not so sure about that, and so I would like to take this opportunity to say a few words in praise of Planet of the Apes, a film whose image has inevitably suffered from association with the far from dazzling later sequels and remake it ultimately spawned. Based on a novel by Pierre Boulle, this was in some ways a highly significant movie, simply because it was the first big-budget SF production for over a decade, and arguably the first ever to feature a major star in the lead role.

The star of Planet of the Apes is, of course, Charlton Heston, at very near the apogee of his fame and abilities. He plays Taylor, the cynical and pessimistic commander of a deep space mission. After a long period of travel at near-lightspeed velocities, Taylor and his companions crash-land on an apparently barren world. They are cut off from home by millions of miles and two thousand years (a side-effect of travel at such enormous velocities), and start searching for food and water.

They find them, along with primitive, feral humans. But there is another civilisation here as well. The humans are raiding the crops of this world’s masters, several species of intelligent apes, and they respond by ruthlessly hunting down and killing these pests (as this is only two thousand years in the future, the government’s ban on hunting has still not quite come into effect). Taylor finds himself captured, and about to be treated like an experimental specimen by the ape scientists…

Taylor eventually manages to convince two of his captors, veterinarian chimpanzee Zira (Kim Hunter) and her fiance, archaeologist Cornelius (Roddy McDowell), that he is an intelligent being – but this only serves to worsen his predicament. The Minister for Science, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) seems to have a pathological terror and hatred of even the idea of an intelligent human, and an equal determination to destroy Taylor and the threat he represents. It seems the ape civilisation has a dark secret at its heart…

The most impressive thing about Planet of the Apes is not its production values and make-up effects, striking though they both are, but the way in which it succeeds in operating on many different levels. First and foremost, you can watch it as an adventure-thriller, with Heston put into personal jeopardy on a regular basis and a number of big set piece action sequences along the way. The story’s various revelations are skilfully handled, as are the grisly revelations of the diverse but uniformly horrible fates met by the other members of Taylor’s crew. The eerie score by Jerry Goldsmith is another significant asset.

But beyond this, and setting the movie apart from nearly all modern SF movies, is the way in which it quite casually touches upon a large number of different ideas and issues. To be sure, it doesn’t explore most of them in any great depth, but at least they’re there for the perceptive viewer to pick up on. And most of them are topics which mainstream non-SF movies would probably shy away from – most obviously is the film’s commentary on animal rights, achieved through a simple reversal of the status quo. But equally central to the story is a startlingly incisive critique of religious fundamentalism: the ape ruling caste sneer at the theory of evolution which some of the younger chimps are proposing. By implication, the villains of the film are creationists: something you almost certainly won’t find in many mainstream films these days. Admittedly some of the satire in the film is clumsy and obvious, but this is limited to minor elements of the script.

Even so, what gives Planet of the Apes its’ memorably grim quality is the fact that, at its heart, this is a very simple story about one man’s journey. It’s somehow blackly comic that Taylor begins the film by turning his back on human civilisation, convinced that there must be something superior out there – but as the film goes on he finds himself an advocate for his own species, determined to prove man can be more than just the destructive animal Zaius insists is the case. This is what gives the movie’s famous ending its power: Taylor, having rediscovered his belief in the worth of his own kind, suddenly has it snatched away from him again, and is left a howling wreck in the surf.

Heston’s performance is equal to the task, both physically (one suspects he found the shoot every bit as demanding as his more heavily made-up co-stars) and emotionally – he even manages to make some of scriptwriter Rod Serling’s more peculiar dialogue sound quite natural. But the rest of the principle cast are equally impressive, even if Hunter and McDowell wouldn’t really get a chance to shine until a couple of sequels later.

And I do think that in its own way this is every bit as impressive a movie as 2001. Admittedly, it is frequently clumsy and unsubtle, some of the humour is laboured, and in places it’s rather implausible. But it’s involving in a way the Kubrick movie rarely is and, while not wholly immune to portentousness, neither is it overwhelmed by its own profundity. The first three sequels are really rather good, too. I think this is a genuine classic of the cinema, and a landmark movie of the SF genre.

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