I’m going to spoil two things here. First, the ending of Planet of the Apes, which I don’t really think is that big of a problem. Nearly every VHS and DVD cover along with countless posters has had the “surprise” ending plastered across it for the past forty-five years. Second, I’m going to spoil the ending of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. I do recommend that you see this movie first as the ending of the sequel has a much greater impact in my mind than the ending of the first film.
In 1968, audiences were absolutely stunned by Planet of the Apes, a film that revolutionized movie makeup and twist endings around the globe. Even better for 20th Century Fox, the film was a financial success. Unfortunately in the couple years that followed, Fox produced several big budget failures that put the studio on the verge of bankruptcy. The solution? To produce a more ambitious sequel to the original film with bigger, better set pieces. With a guaranteed audience and a smaller budget, how could it not profit in theaters? Somehow this strategy paid off and the film was successful, and I have no idea how that happened because Beneath the Planet of the Apes turned out to be bat shit crazy.
Sometimes when the credits start rolling, you remember the beginning of the film you just finished watching and wonder, “How in the hell did this happen?” You wonder where exactly the movie turned into another movie completely and defied any possible expectation you had of its ending. The Village did a really good job of turning that formula into a slap in the face.
I remember watching Planet of the Apes as a child and really enjoying it, then moving on to Beneath. I wondered, “Is this really happening?” Then I moved onto Escape from the Planet of the Apes and wondered if Beneath the Planet of the Apes was just a dream. If it really was a dream, I wasn’t quite sure if what I had experienced was pleasant, or a nightmare. I’ve made up my mind now: Beneath the Planet of the Apes is too awesomely insane for me not to love it.
Beneath isn’t really as “good” of a movie as the original, or even as worthy as the third film, Escape. The first forty minutes of Ted Post’s ridiculous sequel rehash the plot of the first film to a T. A blond-haired, blue-eyed astronaut crash lands so far in the future he doesn’t realize he’s really on Earth. Of course, the audience knows what’s going on, so now we spend a lot of time rolling our eyes as the new character, Brent, discovers that monkeys can talk and that humans are inferior slaves. Now it’s Brent’s turn to get captured, escape, get captured again, and escape again with the aid of the chimpanzees Cornelius and Zira.
This is 1970, so we needed a Vietnam allegory whether or not we wanted it. The new antagonist, General Ursus, goes on a rant that Brent witnesses early on after his crash landing. This rally speech isn’t exactly a subtle reference to the Vietnam War, but how about a peaceful protest later with chimpanzees chanting “Peace and freedom! Stop the war!” It’s even complete with an old political figure chiding them and saying, “Get out of the way, young people.”
While Planet of the Apes makes an attempt at being subtle, Beneath knows from the outset that there’s no longer a point. The audience doesn’t care about revolutionary makeup techniques or discussions of humanity’s violent nature anymore. The story is about Brent moving from point A to point B in very spectacular ways involving an amped up amount of violence and stunts.
The saving grace of this is that James Franciscus plays Brent in a more sincere and likeable way than Charlton Heston played Taylor in the previous film. Planet of the Apes is a good movie, but I always thought Taylor was such a jerk that I never really cared what happened to him. Brent isn’t the most complex character to emerge from science fiction, but he’s at least likeable and sympathetic. Basically, he’s not an arrogant prick like Taylor was.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes gets interesting when we’re done running around the same sets from the first film and the story movies underground. It turns out the ruins of New York City are located beneath the locations explored during the first movie. Who knew?
Now, when I was a kid, the moment when I wasn’t sure if what I was watching was actually happening or not came during this transition. It turns out that there have been talking humans on Earth the whole time! Not only that, but they’re skinless atomic-bomb-worshiping telekinetic psychics! You mean, the whole time the characters were struggling through the plot of Planet of the Apes, there were talking mutant people underground the whole time? Yes.
When you put this movie in your DVD player, you had no idea it would deviate this far from the original material. During the scene when Brent and Taylor are being telepathically commanded to kill each other with spiked weapons, you might recall scenes from the first film that are tonally incompatible. The first movie is about talking, this movie is about fighting. Later, when people are getting gunned down and Taylor’s holding his guts in, you also realize this movie is rated G. If I had kids, I’d feel comfortable watching Planet of the Apes with them. I think it’s an accessible movie for all ages. I probably wouldn’t bring kids into this one. It’s not that I think Beneath is too violent, it’s just so disturbing. I’d be squeamish during the scene where the mutants unmask themselves and sing hymns to an atomic bomb in a fallout shelter cathedral. Sequences where the mutants telepathically project visions to an invading gorilla army include individuals being crucified upside down while their deity’s face drips blood above them. Things get intense.
The funny thing is, the third film is almost a comedy. They must have felt like they needed to compensate for the dark ending of Beneath. Here’s where I spoil that, by the way: When the gorilla army invades the underground mutant city, everyone gets shot. And then, the whole world explodes. And there are three movies in the series after this one, go figure.
I have to give this movie props, though. It may be more cheesy and less credible than the first film in the series, but it has an attitude and it doesn’t water anything down. It has an edge much like the later entry, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Many Hollywood films had this edge throughout the 1970s, pioneered by Beneath the Planet of the Apes. It wasn’t afraid to blow up the Earth and kill every character before our eyes. When Star Wars came out in 1977, Hollywood stopped making these types of movies, or at least made less of them. Hollywood films had to be benevolent and stupid after ‘77. Beneath the Planet of the Apes is important because it really ushered in this era of hard-edged, downbeat films and it’s not like audiences didn’t enjoy themselves, because it collected its budget in ticket sales a few times over at the theaters.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes is my favorite film in the series because it’s so many things. It’s disturbing, extreme, and most of the time it’s completely absurd. One thing it is not, though, is boring. You’ll probably be captivated by this movie upon first viewing, mostly because it’s so strange and so different from the first film, and even the third, fourth, and fifth. You might even spit out your drink at certain points, but I’m willing to bet it will stay in your head for a while after whether you like it or not.