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Ape Management Part 2: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1969)

Last week I began my project to re-watch all five original Planet of the Apes movies by re-watching the original Planet of the Apes from 1967.  Today, we move to discuss the first sequel: 1969’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

For whatever reason, Charlton Heston only participates in this sequel in a very limited role.  We see him in reused footage from Planet of the Apes at the start of the film, and in a handful of new shots, and then not again until the end of the film.  But somehow, shockingly, I don’t find myself missing him all that much.

In Chuck’s place, we meet a new protagonist: Brent (played by James Franciscus).  Brent is pretty much the exact same character as Taylor.  He’s a human from modern time who was catapulted through time and space to crash land on the Planet of the Apes.  (The film postulates that he was sent on a rescue mission to find Taylor and his crew, who never returned home.  But the first film told us that, due to the time dilation effects of space-travel, Taylor and his team weren’t supposed to have returned to Earth until 700 years after they left!  So I’m not quite sure when/why a rescue mission would have been sent after them, but whatever…)  Brent even LOOKS like a dead ringer for Taylor!  This is the type of thing that would usually have me groaning in agony at the stupidity of it all, but somehow when I watch this film I always find myself liking Brent — in many ways, even more than Taylor.  Mr. Franciscus’ performance has none of the scene-chewing histrionics that made Mr. Heston’s work in the original film so memorable, but in some respects that actually helps the story.  Brent seems like a much nicer fellow than Taylor, and he certainly acts more like one would imagine an astronaut would.  Mr. Franciscus isn’t a BIG STAR like Mr. Heston, but he does a fine job carrying the film’s story on his shoulders.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes expands on the world of the first film by playing up the differences between the different types of apes: the conservative, political-minded Orangatuns, the weaker, scientifically-focused Chimpanzees, and the war-like Gorillas.  I find this concept intriguing and it allows for a hint of the social commentary that was such a primary aspect of the first film’s narrative, though the idea that there are just three ape personality types is rather simplistic.

And, anyways, this installment — with its radioactive mutants and their perilous forbidden zone — is clearly far more of a pulp adventure than the first film.  Oh, yes, there are radioactive underground-dwelling mutants.  Although the atomic wars that devastated the planet have rendered this group of humans (who, unlike the surface-dwelling humans who we saw in the first film, have maintained their intelligence and their ability to speak and to reason) horribly disfigured, it has also apparently allowed them to develop strong telepathic powers.  Oh, and they worship an unexploded nuclear bomb, one last remnant of the weapons that decimated the planet.

The whole thing is just so silly it’s hard to type the above plot description while keeping a straight face, but what I enjoy about Beneath the Planet of the Apes is that the movie takes everything so seriously.  Many sci-fi sequels tend to descend into camp and self-parody, and while that will affect this series (particularly in the next installment, Escape From the Planet of the Apes), here in this movie the mutants are presented as a serious threat to Brent, Nova, and in fact to the rest of the population of the globe.  So, too, are the war-mongering gorillas.  So while I can laugh myself silly at the faces the mutants make while communicating with one another telepathically, at the crazy song they sing in worship of their unexploded bomb (“the booooomb!!”), and at the mysteriously vibrating metal ladders that lead into their underground lair, the movie is still somehow able to continue to be a rousing adventure story.

At least, until the final few minutes.  Then the story takes a shocking turn into tragedy — which, with this film, became embedded as a hallmark of the Apes films that would continue with only the fifth installment as an exception.  (Battle For the Planet of the Apes ends with a little bit of hope, but all four other Apes films all end with staggeringly downbeat endings.)  This one, though, (and there are SPOILERS ahead here, my friends, so beware) is absolutely the most downbeat ending of the bunch.

I thought the film was designed to position Brent as the new star of the franchise, so that the (presumably more expensive) Charlton Heston could be phased out.  But that assumption was quite dramatically shattered when we see Brent shot dead at the end of the film.  Then Taylor is killed too.  Then the bomb goes off and destroys the world!  The end!

It’s a crazy, mad-cap ending, and seems like one designed by the writer(s) to say: “Take that Hollywood!  Make a sequel to THIS, why don’t you!!”  Of course, they did find a way to make a sequel.  Several, in fact.  But we’ll get back to that next week when we discuss Escape From the Planet of the Apes!

“He bleeds!  The lawgiver bleeds!”

Closing thoughts on Beneath the Planet of the Apes: There are so many reasons why I should dislike this film.  In many ways, it’s a much simpler, conventional film that Planet of the Apes, and it doesn’t have any of the first film’s high-minded narrative ideas.  But in other ways, it’s a much nuttier, far-out film than the rather talky Planet of the Apes, and I really dig that craziness.  This film is filled with iconic scenes and lines (“the only good human is a dead human!”), and while the first Planet of the Apes certainly didn’t leave me thinking “this film really needs a sequel,” I think this movie stands as a pretty worthy sequel to that original film.  It’s certainly damn fun to watch.  The only real down-side, to me, is that Roddy McDowell was unavailable to reprise his role of Cornelius.  While the actor they found to replace him does a fine job, Mr. McDowell is certainly missed.  It’s a relief, then, that he’s able to step back into Cornelius’ hairy feet for the next film.

As we close our examination of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, join me, if you will, in prayer:

“May the blessings of the Bomb almighty, and the fellowship of the Holy Fallout, descend upon us all.”

Amen!

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