Last of the Monster Kids

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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Ambitious science fiction series were not as common in 1970 as they are now. Yet Fox was clearly understood that they had something special with “Planet of the Apes.” Following the first film's success, a sequel was immediately greenlit. Production on “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” was not exactly smooth. Original scripts by Pierre Boulle and Rod Serling were rejected. The budget was slashed to three million. Charlton Heston was disinterested in returning. Despite these issues, the film would still be a success upon release. Looking back on it now, “Beneath” shows the “Apes” series displaying some growing pains during its sophomore effort.

After uncovering the beached Statue of Liberty at the end of the last film, Taylor and Nova ventured further into the Forbidden Zone. After being assaulted by strange visions, Taylor disappears. Another Earthly astronaut, named Brent, follows Taylor to the future planet of apes. He meets Nova, Zira and Cornelius. He also witnesses a gorilla general, named Ursus, convince the ape politicians to launch a military raid into the Forbidden Zone. Brent and Nova, still on Taylor's trail, head into the abandoned area. What they uncover is a bizarre subterranean society and a threat that may mean the true end of the world.

Sequelizing “Planet of the Apes” was probably not an easy task, as the original's ending was fairly definitive. “Beneath” gets around this problem but essentially retreading the first film's story during its beginning half. We have a suspiciously similar substitute for Charlton Heston's Taylor arriving on the planet. He experiences many of the same events, such as journeying through a seemingly barren world, being shocked by the ape society, and getting help from Zira and Cornelius. This not only bores the audience, it slightly insults their intelligence. Brent following Taylor's footsteps exactly, ending up in the same future Earth as him, pushes suspension of disbelief past its breaking point. Combined with some maudlin action scenes, such as an uninspiring fight scene on a carriage, and you get the impression that “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” is nothing but a quickie sequel.

And then the movie takes a charmingly nuts turn. Brent and Nova journey deep into the Forbidden Zone, uncovering the submerged, blasted remains of New York City. They also discover a race of telepathic, scorched skinned, quasi-human mutants. If that wasn't weird enough, the mutants worship a doomsday bomb, with a religious awe bordering on the Pentecostal. These scenes contain some delightfully nutty moments. Like Brent being commanded to kill Nova, fight with Taylor, or overwhelmed with telepathic communications. The image of a church full of skinless weirdos praising a world-killing bomb is unforgettably bizarre. You do feel a bit like you wondered into a totally different film but I can't help but love weird shit like this.

Another problem facing a “Planet of the Apes” sequel is making it mean something, the same way the original's satire and commentary meant something. Director Ted Post – previously of “Hang 'Em High” and later of “Magnum Force” and “The Baby” – decides on an anti-war message. The ape's warmongering is their undoing. They marched into the Forbidden Zone, destroying everything around them with little care for the consequences. In a none-too-subtle reference to Vietnam War protest, they also imprison some hippy ape youths. Yet the film's anti-war message eventually degrades into an ugly nihilism. The apes gun down everyone in ways that push the limits of the PG rating. The mutants die, Brent dies, Taylor dies, even innocent Nova dies. Taylor activates the super-bomb with his dying breath, deciding none of this life is worth living. The sudden conclusion, and curt narration that tops it off, strikes the viewer as careless and sloppy.

Another problem with “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” is how it diminishes the first film's cast. Zira and Cornelius disappear halfway through the film, not appearing again after helping Brent escape. An attempt is made to maintain Dr. Zaius' complexity but he's ultimately too willing to go along with General Ursus' mindless destruction. Ursus, at the very least, is a good villain. James Gregory's hawkish speeches are delivered with a gravelly conviction. He's certainly a lot better than James Franciscus as Brent. Franciscus is a poor imitation of Heston, unconvincing as an action star and generally kind of whiny. You're probably expecting me to complain about David Watson replacing Rodney McDowell as Cornelius. Watson doesn't share the same chemistry with Kim Hunter. It is odd hearing someone else's voice come out of Cornelius' mouth, considering how associated with the series McDowell would become. Otherwise, Watson does okay. Truthfully, the character's role is so small that you'll hardly notice another actor is playing him.

Perhaps the producers of the “Apes” series would quickly realize they couldn't so closely imitate the first film after this. The sequels would head off in a very different direction. Even with its routine set-up, overly downbeat ending, and weaker leading man, I ultimately can't dislike “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.” Those bomb-worshiping mutants, man. Who thinks of that stuff? The sequel probably needed more wildly imaginative elements like that but still provided me with enough entertainment value. It's one of the weaker entries in the series but I can still dig it. [7/10]

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