Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
"Now civilization's final battle between man and ape is about to begin."
An astronaut sent to find out what happened to Taylor and his crew finds himself stranded on the same planet ruled by apes. Using the information he receives from the chimpanzees that helped Taylor to escape, Brent sets off to the Forbidden Zone to find out what happened to his friend. There he discovers an underground city run by mutated humans who worship a nuclear bomb as their god and plan to use it to end the rule of the apes once and for all.
Honestly, how do you make a sequel to a film which has an ending like Planet of the Apes? Quite literally one of the most memorable endings to ever grace cinema, it was obvious from the moment it became a mega-hit that a sequel would be coming. Film studios are too greedy and the Apes hysteria that followed the original proved that there could be mileage in making it a franchise. Two years down the line along came Beneath the Planet of the Apes, a sequel which re-treads a lot of old ground before settling down to introduce some bizarre, but effective, new ideas and featuring another decent ending.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes plays out like an inferior remake for much of its first act, focusing on the exploits of Brent as he comes to terms with this new world. They go as far as giving James Franciscus, who looks a lot like Charlton Heston with his full-grown beard, the almost-redundant carbon copy lead role. It's basically the same part Heston played in the original: Brent becomes stranded on the planet, is captured by the apes, is assisted by Dr Zira and Cornelius and then discovers that he's on Earth. Only this time the impact of the character realising where he is has somewhat diminished. The novelty and intrigue of seeing the apes' culture has long gone now that the original told us a lot about it. And because it goes through the entire story of the original in half the time, it all feels a little rushed and pointless. Unlike a lot of sequels, Beneath the Planet of the Apes at least makes an effort with continuity and to link in with the original as much as possible. But audience familiarity with the story soon ends half-way through as the narrative shifts from covering the same ground to going off in a new direction, just like a sequel should.
Thankfully the film does kick into gear at this point when Brent heads into the Forbidden Zone and encounters the mutants. There are a series of striking images of Brent and Nova walking around the ruins of the likes of the New York Stock Exchange, brought to life with some excellent matte paintings. Then the film heads into more unusual territory with the post-apocalyptic nuclear bomb-worshipping mutants who have psychic powers. There’s a slew of anti-war propaganda in here, with plenty of religious connotations thrown in for good measure, but the film isn’t quite committed to preaching them. The problem with the story is that the pacing is all over the place – too much happens in a short space of time and then nothing happens for ages. It’s a very stop-start narrative which can be a little jarring at times as just when you think things are picking up, they slow down again. Action fans need not worry though as there’s enough in here to keep audiences happy, far more than the original delivered.
Trying to match the ending of the original was going to be an impossible task but I feel that the writers did a great job here with an even more downbeat finale. I don’t want to spoil anything, but Heston infamously stated that he would only return if they killed off his character and suggested they blow up the planet to prevent any further sequels. Well there were a further three direct sequels after this one, so make up your own judgement after watching. I scratched my head thinking about how they managed to make Escape from the Planet of the Apes after this one but credit to the writers for coming up with an ingenious way to solve the obvious plot hole. It’s not got quite the same impact as the original, but it’s a lot better than most mainstream movies you’ll be watching.
The ape make-up looks fantastic as ever and make-up man John Chambers even goes so far as to show us a couple of full body ape shots as they sit in a sauna and discuss politics. Unfortunately, the lower budget means that only the major featured apes are given the life-like make-up job. The rest of the ape extras are all wearing simple face masks and it looks ridiculous as line upon line of marching gorillas all have the same dumb expression on their faces.
Charlton Heston was reluctant to reprise his role as Taylor but I'm glad he did. He's only in the beginning and the finale but at least adds a little continuity to the series. We all wanted to know what happened to him when he set off into the Forbidden Zone at the end of the original and, whilst many of us would have thought he'd have ended up doing something different, it at least it adds some closure to his story arc. As his look-alike friend, James Franciscus is rather bland although to be fair to him, he never really gets to play the hero as Heston did. You think he's going to be the main character but it's not the case and he ends up being a bit of an afterthought at the end as it's Heston who gets the important things to do. Kim Hunter and Maurice Evans reprise their roles as the apes, Dr Zira and Dr Zaius, and the film could really have used a lot more of them. Maurice Evans is particularly good under the orangutan make-up, just as he was in the original.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes often gets short changed when it comes to sequels. It’s not perfect and has many flaws, easily doing without the first half simply being a beat-for-beat re-tread. But there’s enough continuity with the original to keep some of the leftover arcs running and make it a true follow-up, whilst introducing new themes and character arcs to pick up the slack when the previous ones are resolved.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes
Director(s): Ted Post
Writer(s): Paul Dehn (story by), Mort Abrahams (story by), Pierre Boulle (based on characters created by)
Actor(s): James Franciscus, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, Linda Harrison, Paul Richards, Victor Buono, James Gregory
Duration: 86 mins