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Franchise Files: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

The original1968 Planet of the Apes doesn’t seem like an obvious candidate for a sequel, at least until you learn that it actually made quite a bit of money. Certainly, sequels have been brought to the screen with far less to go on, but the screenwriters faced a challenging task. Although the story does end on something of a cliff-hanger, it is not immediately clear where another outing with these characters in this world could logically go. Watching Beneath the Planet of the Apes, released two years later, it becomes clear that logic didn’t really enter into the equation at all. Even by comparison with the three Apes movies that followed, one each year, this is thin stuff, and easily the weakest entry in the franchise.

Beneath went into production with a critical handicap: Charlton Heston was unwilling to play a major role in the film. As Taylor was the only sentient human character left alive at the end of the first movie, Heston’s decision left any potential sequel without a protagonist mainstream audiences could relate to. Of course, this needn’t have been a handicap at all. Any number of interesting ways to approach such a problem and take the story in a bold new direction consistent with the edgy, ambiguous ending of the original immediately suggest themselves. Unfortunately, the filmmakers decided to go completely the other way instead.

The new protagonist is Brent, played by James Franciscus, yet another astronaut from Earth’s past, the sole survivor of yet another crashed spaceship, this one sent in search of Taylor and his crew. Brent immediately encounters Taylor’s mute girlfriend Nova, still carrying his dog-tags, then stumbles his way through an onerous retread of Taylor’s experiences from the previous movie that occupies roughly half of the runtime of this one. We learn via flashback that Taylor and Nova, after riding off together into the Forbidden Zone, encountered a series of strange phenomena (walls of fire, lightning without clouds, earthquakes), and then came upon a large cliff-face where nothing had been before. Taylor, apparently acting on impulse, dives right through the seemingly solid rock wall and vanishes until the end of the movie.

Meanwhile, Brent observes the gorilla army preparing to invade the Forbidden Zone (to confront the someone or something that apparently inhabits the region) before he and Nova escape from Ape City using the long-abandoned tunnels of the New York Subway, learning for the first time that he has arrived on a future Earth rather than another planet. Traveling deeper into the huge system of tunnels, Brent finally stumbles upon an underground society of mutant humans with powers of telepathy and a religion based on the worship of a nuclear “doomsday” bomb occupying the altar amidst the ruins of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Here Brent is finally reunited with Taylor, who has been taken prisoner by the mutants. The mutants then nearly succeed in forcing them to murder each other using their telepathic powers, but the pair manage to escape. The gorilla invasion is successful thanks to the leadership of the orangutan Dr. Zaius, who sees through the mutants’ telepathic illusions. As the gorillas charge in and lay waste to the mutant society, Brent and Taylor attempt to prevent the mutants from purposely detonating the nuke, and the gorillas from accidentally setting it off. Their efforts backfire horribly when Taylor is riddled with bullets and falls on the activation switch. In the film’s final seconds, the screen goes completely white and a solemn voice intones, “In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe, lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.”

Apart from being a total downer, the film’s destruction-of-the-planet ending is rendered absurd in retrospect. What looked like a definitive end to the series was actually only the second of five films. Beneath the Planet of the Apes also tries very hard to be more action- and effects-driven than its predecessor, which just ends up making it far less thoughtful. There are, however, a few glancing attempts at social commentary. Most notable is a scene where a small chimpanzee peace protest is forcibly removed from the road to allow the gorilla army to pass. The soldiers grappling with the protesters is shot up-close with what seems like a shaky, hand-held camera, presumably meant to evoke news footage of Vietnam War protesters. The army then proceeds, trampling the peace banners under their horses’ hooves.

The heavy-handed evocation of Vietnam is nothing, though, compared to how this movie tramples on the first film’s rich thematic discussion of the tension between science and religion. Someone seems to have realized that the apocalyptic ending of the first film rendered its defense of science over religion fascinatingly ambiguous: Sure, religious dogma in ape society deliberately holds back scientific progress, even to the point of repression, but if the alternative is the complete destruction of civilization itself, which is really the lesser of the two evils? Beneath the Planet of the Apes works overtime to redeem science from the onus of nuclear devastation established in Planet of the Apes and shift the ultimate blame squarely onto religious fanaticism.

In mutant society, religion is depicted at its most absurd extreme in the mindless adulation of an inanimate object. That these bomb-worshiping nitwits also happen to be a race of hyper-intelligent beings with the power to control minds and the intellectual sophistication to turn the apes’ own religious superstition (the gorillas’ one significant handicap) against them doesn’t seem to have struck anyone behind the making of this film as a significant contradiction. Ultimately it is the wild-eyed nihilism of the faithful that dooms the world to nuclear destruction, rather than the cold, emotionless logic of the scientists who created the doomsday weapon that does the job.

For all that it gets wrong, though, Beneath the Planet of the Apes somehow manages to be memorable in a so-bad-that-it’s-good sort of way. Sure, it’s not particularly coherent, but it does bring a number of indelible images to the screen, mostly having to do with the telepathic mutants, the hideous visages they hide under their normal-looking human masks, the shining, phallic bomb they worship, and the wild illusions they produce to confound their enemies. The scale is also somewhat grander in this film, with the impressive gorilla army seen training for battle, traveling in formation, and marshaling for the final attack. Their leader, the charismatic, war-mongering General Ursus (who loudly declaims, “The only good human is a dead human!”) is an interesting new addition to the cast of ape characters.

It’s hard to deny that the film is a failure by any real standard of movie quality, and this remains the easiest of the series to skip without missing any essential details of the overarching plot (which the filmmakers were just making up as they went along anyway). Nevertheless, there is actually plenty of good, campy fun to be had in the watching of it, and any true Apes fan won’t want to miss out. And you’ve got to hand it to that ending: For all their threats to humanity, how many movies actually follow through with the total destruction of Earth and all human life?

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~ by Jared on August 4, 2011.

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