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It is entirely possible that Planet of the Apes has the best batting average of any long-running movie franchise. In 46 years, there have been good Apes movies, and fascinatingly bad Apes movies, and at least one legitimate Hall of Fame masterwork (the original film, one of the most brutally cynical adventures in Hollywood history). The first film was based on a novel by French author Pierre Boule about a monkey planet—but the sequels set off in fascinating, frequently goofy, always energetic new directions.
The central running motif of Humans Wearing Ape Makeup (analog or digital) turned into a freefloating sledgehammer metaphor for Whatever’s In The Air. In Conquest, the ape uprising is an implicit Civil Rights allegory; in Rise, a roughly equivalent uprising vibes environmentalist. Even the worst Apes movies—the low-rent Battle and Tim Burton’s empty reboot—have moments of raw beauty and pulpy weirdness. Battle has the primate mob death-chanting “Ape Has Killed Ape!” over and over again, a moment as funny and disturbing as a community theater production of Lord of the Flies; it also has John Huston in ape makeup. (This weekend’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is basically a better version of Battle.) And Burton’s movie might retroactively mark the moment when Tim Burton stopped being interesting, but in 2001 he still had enough residual kinky instincts to build up the interspecies chemistry between Helena Bonham Carter’s ape scientist and Mark Wahlberg’s human person.
But when I think about the Apes franchise—and the long-ago day when the Planet of the Apes marathon played on some cable network or other, and I recorded all the Apes sequels onto videotapes—I always go straight to Beneath the Planet of the Apes, a bad movie which is also kind of brilliant. It’s a cheap, low-rent sequel that drifts almost accidentally into surreal B-movie transcendence. If you watched Beneath the Planet of the Apes when you were a kid, you can never really forget it.
Some context is required. The first movie was a success; the studio wanted a sequel. Problem: Charlton Heston had negative interest in coming back. Heston ultimately agreed to appear, but only for a few minutes, and only if the filmmakers agreed to kill him off. (This in itself is a fascinating little showbiz tidbit from an era before rampant franchising; can you imagine any actor insisting that his character die in a sequel?) The film’s producers seem to have taken Heston’s request as a defining aesthetic: Part of what makes Beneath so great is that it seems to think its the last Planet of the Apes movie ever.
Which isn’t to say it’s particularly elegant. In an attempt to pretend that Heston didn’t film his role in a couple of days, Beneath begins with a long clip from the original movie, including Heston’s famous monologue. “You maniacs! You blew it up!” From there the movie cuts to our new hero: Brent, played by actor James Franciscus. Franciscus looks like the Diet Caffeine Free version of Charlton Heston—as if the filmmakers were hoping that you’d only watch Beneath out of the corner of your eye. Jesus, just look at what happens when the two actors are onscreen together!
Like Heston’s Taylor, Brent is a present-day astronaut who crashlands on the Ape Planet, and the first hour of Beneath mostly imitates the story of the first movie letter for letter. Crashed ship; captured by apes; costume change from a retro-cool spacesuit to a caveman loincloth; revelation that Ape Planet was Earth all along. You could practically skip to the 50-minute mark of Beneath without missing anything. But there are moments that stick with you. When Brent crash-lands, his ship’s captain gets a death rattle that starts the movie off with an all-encompassing depressive whimper:
“If it’s 3955 AD,” he mumbles. “Oh my God. My wife. My two daughters. Dead. Everyone I ever knew. Everyone…” The man suddenly realizes that everyone he loves is dead; then he dies. And this is where the movie begins. One of the things I love about the Apes franchise is how—when you get past the funny monkey masks—it’s a series that constantly stares into the void. It crossbreeds existential musing with the cheesiest of cheesy science-fiction. Example of the latter: Immediately after Brent buries his skipper, this happens:
That’s Linda Harrison, returning from the first movie as mute cavebabe Nova. Impossibly beautiful post-apocalyptic primal woman wearing an impeccably fitted neanderthal-bikini, riding a horse out of the wasteland: This is just the first moment when Beneath the Planet of the Apes feels less like a movie than a compilation of illustrated covers to cheap fantasy novels.
Nova leads Brent back to Ape City, and to pretty much the only original scene in the first hour: A long speech by gorilla war hawk Ursus, played by James Gregory in full firebreathing mode. In Gregory’s deep baritone, Ursus throws out a speech full of verbal grenades:
What’s great is that Gregory plays the whole thing like he’s doing one of Shakespeare’s top five soliloquies—the actor was only a few years away from playing the sleazy McCarthy clone in The Manchurian Candidate.
Also great: The scene is almost immediately followed by a Bad Guy meeting between Ursus and the returning Dr. Zaius—a meeting that takes place inside of a steam room.
It’s goofy, but the film is clearly in on the intrinsic gag of having two deep-voiced actors wearing ape masks talking like a couple of scheming politicians in Advise & Consent. It’s the kind of colorful note that has mostly disappeared from Hollywood genre filmmaking in the Serious Age.
So Brent goes to Ape City, and he meets the Nice Apes, and he flees Ape City; all leftover bits from the first film. Then around the fifty-minute mark, Brent hides inside of a cave, and Beneath the Planet of the Apes becomes a completely different film. Brent and Nova wander through the ruins of New York City—or anyhow, a Greatest Hits Hollywood version of New York City where the New York Stock Exchange is a couple blocks from Radio City.
Brent arrives at a church and tries to take a sip out of the holy water font; he spits it back out immediately. Then something happens. There’s a noise in his brain. Brent gets a strange look on his face…and suddenly holds Nova’s head underwater.
It’s an unsettling image rife with accidental meaning: You imagine a struggling Catholic filmmaker like Federico Fellini watching this moment and applauding. And from this moment on, Beneath the Planet of the Apes essentially only has fascinating images. Brent recovers from his fit of madness, and he leads Nova into the church, where they see this:
A man in a cave church worshipping a golden missile that’s even more phallic than most missiles: We’re officially in the realm of the Weird now. In the span of a few moments, Beneath has genre-hopped from primordial cave fantasy to something much more outré. The film was directed by Ted Post, a lifer with a long career in TV and movies. Post is mainly notable today because he’s the only man to direct a Planet of the Apes sequel and a Dirty Harry sequel. The way he shoots the initial arrival into this strange place feels a little bit like an episode of Star Trek, with extremely set-like sets a vaguely Greco-Roman style.
The subterranean civilization is ruled by a group of humans who are all vaguely British and thus vaguely evil. One of the humans, a woman, dismisses the apes as “hideous creatures”—maybe the first moment in the Apes franchise when you suddenly find yourself rooting against the humans. (The rebooted up-with-primates Andy Serkis films take all their cues from that moment.)
What makes this segment even more exciting is how Post’s style suddenly becomes more impressionistic. The subterranean humans have the power of mind control—something that seems like it’s going to be important, but it never is—and when they demonstrate their power by forcing Brent to kiss and strangle Nova, Post films the attack in a series of freakishly intimate close-ups that feel almost New Wave in its disturbing mix of sensuality and aggression:
Credit must go to Linda Harrison, who was given the thankless job of spending two straight movies not talking while being pulled around by dudes with beards. She’s no Serkis, but she brings a lot to the movies with little more than her desperate eyes and her body-hugging cave-costume. But credit also has to go to Post, who suddenly lifts the movie out of bland rehash territory. While all this is happening, the gorillas are marching to war back in Ape City and run into a group of peacenik chimpanzees. The soldiers break up the demonstration and force the hippie-chimps into cages—and Post shoots the whole thing with a handheld camera, perhaps consciously imitating the newsreel footage of late-’60s demonstrations.
Chimpanzees holding up anti-war banners in a film released in 1970: Yes, this is about as on-the-nose as symbolism gets. And that sequence looks positively subtle compared to the scene where the subterranean humans conduct a whole church service with traditional prayers rewritten for maximum nuclear-era allegory. “Glory be to the Bomb, and to the Holy Fallout,” says the Bomb Pope. “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. World without end. Amen.” Lest we briefly consider joining up with the Atomic Church, the assembled worshippers pull off their faces, revealing that they are irradiated mutants and GROSS:
If you’re wondering precisely what our nominal hero Brent is doing during all of this, the answer is: “Not much.” Beneath has that first-draft feeling of a story that never quite figured itself out. Brent’s role in the film is basically to watch a lot of interesting things happen. He watches Ursus give a speech; he watches the mutants worship their bomb; he watches passively as Heston returns in the final fifteen minutes to steal the movie out from under him. This makes Beneath the Planet of the Apes a badly written movie, but also grants it a dreamy haziness. Again: This is a movie where a race of mutants has developed the power of mind control, and essentially the only thing they use that mind control for is playful strangulation and Bible-epic hallucinations statues crying blood:
That’s Heston, who finally reappears; the mutants throw Brent into the same cell as Taylor and try to mind-control them into a death duel. (The only reason they don’t kill each other is that Nova finally speaks, saying the name “Taylor” in a raspy Eartha Kitt voice.) Taylor, Brent, and Nova escape from their cell. With under eight minutes left to go in the movie, here is a short list of various plot threads that need to be resolved:
1. The protagonists need to somehow defeat or escape from the apes who are attacking Mutant City.
2. The protagonists need to stop the mutants from launching their holy missile—which is actually powerful enough to destroy the whole planet, a fact revealed by Taylor in one of the great bits of Heston-Brand Overly Emotional Exposition™.
3. Taylor and Nova need to have some sort of resolution to their romantic story arc.
4. The heroes need to have some kind of final reckoning with Ursus, the villain of the movie, who at this point has never actually interacted with any of the protagonists.
That’s a lot to take care of in eight minutes. And what actually happens is so unusual—so shocking in the context of a cut-rate sequel remake—that it might actually be more surprising than the much-ballyhooed final twist in Planet of the Apes. The ending of Beneath is so awesome that I recommend you watch the whole movie before reading on.
Because here is what happens, in very short order, at the end of the second and weirdest Planet of the Apes movie:
The mutants all die—many of them apparently killing themselves. (This, in a movie made a decade before Jonestown.)
Ursus dies, shot in the back.
Brent dies, shot everywhere.
And with Taylor’s dying breath, he activates the missile, killing everyone who isn’t dead.
This is Beneath the Planet of the Apes: A movie that starts off like the foreign-import version of a crappy Hollywood adventure, and somehow winds up becoming a more depressing version of The Bridge on the River Kwai. As the screen fades to white, a narrator speaks from out of the ether, officially scotching any possible hope:
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.
It’s a dark ending, dark as a black hole—all the more so because it confirms every bad thing that Dr. Zaius ever says about humanity. “Man is evil! Capable of nothing but destruction!” he tells Taylor. “You bloody bastard…” Taylor responds, moments before proving his point.
There are better Apes movies and worse Apes movies, but all the films that followed in Beneath‘s wake share that same brute-force cynicism. Escape depends on a goofy time travel twist and kills most of its cast in the final moments; besides the Burton tangent, all the later films trend towards bleakness and apocalypse. I’m not sure you can say Beneath the Planet of the Apes is a good movie, but it’s a fascinatingly off-key artifact from a time when Hollywood franchises weren’t so curated—when a movie star wanted to get killed off, and when the filmmakers decided that they might as well destroy the whole planet for good measure.
Those maniacs. They blew it up.