Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
Where, when and what: In the opening sequence, a spaceship has crashed on a beach in southern California. It contains three intelligent apes: series regulars Dr Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall, back after a film off) and new character Dr Milo (Sal Mineo). They fled the Earth when it was destroyed at the end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Travelling backwards through the time distortion that brought 20th-century astronauts to their world, they now find themselves in 1973. The date is mentioned a couple of times – even though it contradicts the first two films. In those movies, the missions took place no earlier than January 1972 but are now said to be ‘over two years ago’. While drunk, Zira says her era was ‘3950-something’ by the human calendar, which tallies with Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
Humans: Two animal psychologists are called in to assess the three apes after they’re detained by the military. Dr Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman) and Dr Stephanie Branton (Natalie Trundy) are decent, caring and clever people, and are taking the ‘open-minded scientists’ role that Zira and Cornelius played in the first film. Dixon and Branton soon learn that the apes can talk and are intelligent. So Zira and Cornelius are paraded in front of a stuffy presidential enquiry, during which they charm the audience but stoke the paranoia of a mandarin called Dr Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden). A bit of an all-round shit, he advocates killing pregnant Zira’s unborn child and neutering the apes in order to prevent the ape-dominated future. After 70 minutes, circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalbán) is introduced. He’s willing to hide Zira and Cornelius from the authorities, and their son is born in the circus. It’s not the most naturalistic plotting you’ll ever see (conveniently helpful character shows up near the end!), but it’s a fun performance.
Apes: Zira and Cornelius’s friend Milo wasn’t in the previous films. He’s been added to explain how – in the midst of a nuclear holocaust – two mild-mannered scientists retrieved a spaceship from the bottom of a lake, launched it into space and piloted it 2,000 years into the past. His purpose over, Milo is killed soon after they reach 1973. When subjected to tests by the naïve humans, Zira and Cornelius initially act dumb. But Zira can’t resist answering back and reveals her intelligence to Dixon and Branton. Once they’ve been outed to the world, Zira and Cornelius then become celebrities. They stay in a posh hotel, get makeovers, give talks and appear on TV – the film just *sings* around this point. But Zira faints during a trip to a museum because she’s pregnant. The couple are then moved to the CIA’s Camp Eleven for interrogation (Lord knows what the public gets told about the apes’ disappearance). There they explain the franchise backstory. The world encountered by Taylor in the first film came about because of a plague that killed off all the cats and dogs; humans started using apes as pets, then two centuries later as servants. Three hundred years after that, an ape called Aldo rebelled and uttered the first ape word: “No.” Distressingly – genuinely upsettingly – Zira and Cornelius are killed while trying to escape the authorities. At first you also think that Zira’s baby son is dead. But then we learn that Zira had hidden him in the circus for safety (and sequel storylines).
Review: This is a movie that deserves to be much more famous than it is. At its heart is a bonkers idea: talking apes from a post-apocalyptic future are dropped into modern-day LA. But it works, largely because the silliness is played straight. The role reversal of a role reversal motors the story along, keeps the interest, and provides plenty of fun. The film has a dry sense of humour, while the smart satire – of the media, of celebrity culture, of racial prejudice, of political paranoia, even looking forward to reality TV – is fantastic. That’s not to say the film is frivolous or smug. There’s darkness and tension, especially in the second half. But everything is directed with an impressive light touch. Telling character moments are allowed to breathe, jokes land perfectly, themes bubble under the story rather than swamping it… On the downside, the movie is more televisual than the first two, largely being talky scenes in small sets, while the human characters are either wet or one-dimensional. But it’s still got lots of heart. What a film. A real treat.
Nine ape-onauts out of 10