SUB-GENRES: Thriller / Drama
DIRECTED BY: Ted Post
WRITTEN BY: Paul Dehn (screenplay); Paul Dehn & Mort Abrahams (story); Based on a novel by Pierre Boulle
PEW PEW: There is significantly less action in this film, when compared to the first, or the style of action just doesn’t translate as well in this one, and it’s kind of insanely boring.
CAT FOOD: The Planet of the Apes film series frequently dips its pen into the ink of social commentary and liberally applies it to in both the background and foreground of the pictures. This one has a little less to say than the first film, but it does tackle racism, war, religion, equality, and more.
There was no shortage of science fiction novels being published in the fifties and sixties, and many of them had powerful things to say about the world around their authors. While some of these novels went on to be adapted into film, many of them were too ambitious or bizarre to even attempt a faithful re-imagining. When French author Pierre Boulle (famous for The Bridge On the River Kwai) published La Planète des Singes (Monkey Planet) in 1963, it’s hard to believe anyone could picture a successful film coming out of it, with the limited production tools of the era, at least.
But blow me down, they did it. La Planète des Singes, a novel about a journalist’s experience on a distant planet populated by intelligent apes who wore suits and drove cars, and treated the less advanced humans like animals, went on to spawn eight feature films (with a ninth on the way next year), a live-action television series, a cartoon series, and a clandestine merchandising campaign that predates Star Wars’. So pull up a seat, cause over the next eight days, we’re going to talk about Planet of the Apes, easily one of the most profound and important science fiction film series’ in the genre’s rich history.
After the success of the first film in 1968, many people were hungry for more. A bombshell was dropped at the end of the first Planet of the Apes which posed a whole new set of questions. Regardless of what would happen in the sequel, it seemed war and its effects would be a central theme in its social commentary. In 1970, despite having a smaller budget and being without Roddy McDowall and (mostly) Charlton Heston, Beneath the Planet of the Apes was released.
If you haven’t seen the first film and don’t know what happens at the end, I’ll urge you to watch it and not to spoil it for yourself. This review will carry on from here as if you already know the end, so this is your final warning!
The film begins a short time after the end of the first film and it even replays the ending for those who forgot exactly what had happened. Taylor has discovered that the planet of the apes is Earth 2000 years after it was destroyed by humans in a nuclear war. Taylor and his mate, the lovely Nova, march through the Forbidden Zone on horseback in search of a new place to call home… A place away from the oppressive apes who’d damn near been the death of them.
After seeing several shocking visions in the desert, Taylor moves in to investigate and disappears, leaving Nova alone and afraid with instructions to seek out their chimpanzee ally Zira if such a situation should arise. Kind of crappy, considering he’s basically sending her right back into the maw from which they’d just escaped, but oh well.
So then a new astronaut named Brent, who was sent from modern Earth to find Taylor and his crew, crash lands in the Forbidden Zone and finds Nova, who takes him back to Ape City to get a crash course on ape culture that’s not quite as engaging as it was the first time. Zira and Cornelius, who are in a bind of their own under the watchful eye of the shrewd Dr. Zaius, help them on their way, but not before we meet the fiercely aggressive General Ursus, who incidentily has the coolest costume in the whole film. It seems Ursus, who has lost many men on scouting missions to the Forbidden Zone, has whipped up a grand gorilla army that is bent on finding whatever is out there and eliminating it.
When Brent and Nova escape to a ruined subway station, they are called into the depths of a ruined New York City and there they meet a colony of mutated humans who have lived beneath the surface since after the nuclear holocaust. They have evolved to use telepathy and can present terrifying illusions as well as physical and mental pain, and they can even force their enemies to hurt each other against their will.
Oh, and they worship a doomsday bomb that has the ability to destroy the entire planet.
Well yeah, the film is kind of shit. All of the spirit and tension of the original film is lost in a hectic rush to pit these two enemies together in a battle which is horribly one-sided and pointless. All other plot points are a means to an end and it seems the characters are just vehicles for a sloppy, uninteresting narrative that does nothing but drive into our skulls the complete futility of war. Our most beloved characters either find their doom or aren’t really focused on much at all. The whole mutant thing is complete and utter bullshit… I just hate what this film does to the absolute dignity of the first one.
The film does not, however, lack in cast. While Charlton Heston takes the backseat (apparently at his own request) the Brent character is played by James Franciscus, who was no hack himself. It is unfortunate that his name has become synonymous with attempting to fill the shoes of a much more legendary actor, however. After Heston, it’s a little tough to accept even Franciscus’ more than decent acting chops.
While Zira is still played by Kim Hunter, and still as fantastically I might add, her husband Cornelius is played by David Watson instead. As Roddy McDowall feared being typecast as the character (something which would actually kind of happen anyway), Watson took over the role and actually does a respectable McDowall impression. Aside from body language (McDowall had this part of his character down pat) you can hardly tell a change of casting had occurred. More of Zira’s strongheaded character is revealed in this picture, one of the only benefits of the sequel. It’s good to have more Zira and Nova.
And of course, the character of Dr. Zaius is explored in greater detail. He is still steadfast in his faith, but in this one, when contrasted with the savage General Ursus, Zaius isn’t quite the antagonist anymore. He fears the gorilla war and what it will do to his people, but as defender of the faith he must go along with it. It’s interesting to see the character pushed against his will a little. Maurice Evans delivers another strong performance in the role.
Ape City still looks the same, and that’s cool, but, as the budget was a lot lower than it was for the original film, the vast majority of the background apes are wearing non-descript halloween-like masks that it’s hard not to notice. This is a far cry from the ultra-immersive subverted culture we witnessed in the first film.
From an action standpoint, the film has select pockets of it, but none of it comes off nearly as intense as it did in the first film. It becomes boring as sun-baked shit later on when the mutants show up. I hope you like ringing sounds and people staring while voiceovers babble uninterestingly for what seems like forever.
The social commentary, while still there and not totally ruined, is far less profound than the original movie’s. As stated above, this film focuses more on the futility of war and aggressive foreign policy than it does on racial segregation and human and animal rights. A decent amount of focus is reserved for religion as well, as both sides have it and seemed inseparable from it.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes is in most ways a complete and utter disappointment for fans of the original Planet of the Apes. It’s mind-numbingly boring at times and, worst of all, when it does become interesting, it’s because of characters that just go on to find their doom when real narrative should be about growth. It rips your guts out if you’re a big fan. To put it quite frankly, Beneath the Planet of the Apes is, erm, beneath Planet of the Apes.