Subterranean Apesick Blues
Beneath The Planet Of The Apes
Directed by Ted Post
20th Century Fox
Blu Ray Region B
Warning: I need to talk about the ending of this
movie so consider yourself warned for spoilers.
So two years after the awesome Planet Of The Apes (reviewed here) we got the first of the sequels which was, I have to say, somewhat less awesome. Of the five original Apes movies, I’ve always thought they made three really great ones and two clunkers. My least favourite of the bunch being the final of the five, Battle For The Planet Of The Apes, and this one running it a close second for worst Apes film ever, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes.
I didn’t know this the first time I ever saw this movie but there are some good reasons why this one is but a pale shadow of the former installment. For starters, the previous movie’s star, Charlton Heston, reportedly did not want to be in this one and so cut a deal where he was promised that he’d be working for only two weeks on the film... which is why he is not the lead character in this, instead appearing only at the start of the movie and then returning for his “final solution” of an ending to the story. He donated his paycheck on this one to a charity.
Another factor in this film’s lack of oomph must also be to do with the fact that, because of severe financial problems 20th Century Fox were suffering through at the time due to the box office failure of big projects like Hello, Dolly and Tora! Tora! Tora!, the budget was reportedly slashed late in the day from five million dollars to two and a half million dollars. That can’t have helped morale and I believe the decision to get Ted Post in as the director on this one was largely due to his experience in shooting a lot of television and dealing with low budgets. This kinda makes sense but one wonders, in hindsight, if the company would have been so quick to slash the funding if they’d have known the longevity of the franchise which, as you probably know, is still running to this day.
The main factor for me though, and I don’t know who made this decision, is that it’s not had any input from one of the key developers of the first movie, Rod Serling, who gave us that marvellous twist ending (just like he would have written for one of his Twilight Zone episodes) and who was a meticulous writer with a good attention to detail, in my opinion.* I think this film in particular suffers from not having him on board but... I can’t just blame that either because, as far as I remember, he wasn’t involved in any of the other sequels either... and some of those were great.
The film actually starts, pre-credits and then throughout the opening of the movie, with a cut down version of the last few scenes of the original film, ending with a slightly censored version of Taylor’s final outburst before moving onto the apes and then the new lead. Interestingly, of the three main apes who feature in the flashback scenes at the start of the film - Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter and Maurice Evans - only Evans and Hunter reprised their roles as Zira and Dr. Zaius for this second movie. Roddy McDowell was busy directing a film in Scotland at the time and so the role of Cornelius this time around, asides from those opening revisited scenes, is played by David Watson, finding himself in the unfortunate position of having to... um... ape McDowell’s mannerisms.
So, instead of our main man Charlton in the lead role as Taylor, we have Heston look-alike James Franciscus, taking over as crashed astronaut Brent, sent to rescue Heston and his buddies. We don’t see the crash, or at least an expressive camera movement like in the first movie, presumably due to the budgetary restraints. Instead we have a broken up ship on desert land... which makes you wonder how Brent survives the crash, to be honest. In Planet Of The Apes, Taylor and company crash land on water but the debris in Beneath The Planet Of The Apes shows a cracked open spaceship. After burying his fellow crew members, Brent stumbles across Linda Harrison reprising her role as Taylor’s love interest, the silent Nova. After spying Taylor’s dog tags around her neck, something which wasn’t established at all in the first movie, we get more of Taylor’s story in the mind of Nova as Brent tries to establish communication. We see Heston and Harrison surviving weird walls of fire and then... Taylor falls through a solid mountain in a special effect worthy of something with even more of it’s budget slashed than this movie apparently was. Seriously people... lets not go there. It would be an understatement to say that most of the effects in this film are... just not that special.
Nova takes Brent to meet Cornelius and Zira in a sequence which has none of the punch of Taylor’s first meeting with the titular apes and after that we get a load of scenes involving hiding Brent away from prying eyes in Cornelius and Zira’s pantry, and lots of humourous dialogue and action which is a little bit over the top and more appropriate for a bedroom farce in some places. While this kind of writing and performance works well in the next film in the series, if memory serves, it really undermines the gravitas of the situations the main protagonist finds himself in here, it has to be said. There’s also lots of captured, escaped, captured, escaped to-ing and fro-ing which seems to me, to be honest, to just be padding to keep the budget of the film down.
It seems the writers have also toned down Maurice Evans’ Zaius character substantially from the first film. Zira and Cornelius should either be dead or in jail but, instead, they are married now... even though the film can only have taken place a week or so at most since the first movie (must have been a hasty criminal trial followed by a quick wedding). Interestingly enough, when Heston reacts to Zaius at the end of the movie, calling him a “bloody bastard”, it grates in a way that it wouldn’t have in the first film. It’s like the character has changed but Taylor is still acting towards him like he would have in the first movie... I believe there were a lot of script rewrites on this one.
Technically the film is not very good and seems to want to solve everything with dodgy short cuts. I’ve already mentioned the not so special effects (don’t even get me started on those crude lightning forks) but you also have stuff like, for instance, the sauna scenes. Dr. Zaius and other apes are seen talking in a sauna and there is a small amount of steam in the room. Now I know those ape costumes were hot but, I’m pretty sure that whenever they cut to a close up of the apes talking, the steam has just been superimposed on over the shot. It just doesn’t look right. I’m guessing they used steam for the master shots but, when it came time to shoot the close ups, they just turned the steam off because it was playing havoc with the actors and the make up. That’s what I think, anyway, and there seems to be an air of cheapness about the whole production, it has to be said. Which is a shame.
Where the film really loses it for me, however, is when Brent and Nova stumble upon the buried remains of our civilisation in an underground cavern. Underground to this future time period, obviously, and not as it would be seen today (which puts paid to one of the so called “goofs” reported on the IMDB). After a revelation which is a little less stunning than the original movie’s Statue Of Liberty ending, due to the timing of it mostly, we have this place populated by deformed mutants who tend talk telepathically until Brent shows up so they start using their voices (even when they don’t have to at later stages of the film... since Brent isn’t in the same room with them), worship an atomic bomb and wear masks that make them appear more human. Even though they live in isolation and have absolutely no reason for wearing these ‘human masks’ within their society.
It’s here that Brent finally catches up with Taylor and, after the mutants interrogate him telepathically and force him via mind control to try and kill Nova, they then make Brent and Taylor fight with the sheer power of just one controlling mind... and it’s all nonsense. It also seems a little at odds with the society so cleverly worked out for the first movie. Certainly it’s more appropriate to an old Star Trek episode (which I think the idea might have even been partially inspired by) and trying to shoehorn this plot into a movie with enough of a high profile concept in it as it is... and it’s such a brilliant evolutionary idea that the apes films start off from... just seems very clumsy, ham fisted and generally superfluous to anything in the rest of the story. I don’t know at what point this script had this tribe of half rejects from The Omega Man (reviewed here) grafted onto it but I know it was worked on quite a few times before this version was made (I believe even James Franciscus himself worked on one draft of the screenplay) and the introduction of these mutants is a bold but totally awful idea. It doesn’t fit the tone of the series and sticks out like a sore thumb... just awful.
Rosenman’s score is quite good and he sticks with percussion propelled orchestration and somewhat atonal writing set up by the film’s previous composer as a kind of musical syntax for the apes. It’s not nearly as special or experimental, nor as memorable, as Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the first movie but... at least it fits the film okay. Honestly, though, those bloody tone pyramids he does really do get on my nerves (see my review of The Car here for further clarification).
The one good thing that this film has to offer is... its last five minutes. My understanding is that Heston favoured the ending as it was shot and, since he’d hoped there would be no more sequels made (from what I understand), the ending of this one is pretty final in its conclusion with all three human protagonists being shot dead, caught in the battle between the apes and the mutant humans - first Nova, then Brent and then, finally Taylor - and then, with his “bloody bastards” line, Heston’s dying character activates the doomsday bomb and the whole planet is wiped out. It’s a particularly good ending to a film that started off okayish, got very weak and then somehow managed to get us to a final solution that at least still packs a punch. So there’s that.
Still... with Heston and co thinking “End of world equals end of franchise” kind of sentiments... it’s at this point that I remind you that three more sequels were made and, despite the absolute leap of faith required for the reasoning behind the plausibility of the story in the next entry... I have to say that the third one, which also sees the return of Jerry Goldsmith as the main composer (Goldsmith and Rosenman each scored two of the Planet Of The Apes movies each with another composer being brought in for the fourth of the five movies), is a much better sequel and also manages to shift the story of the first one into a topsy turvy comic reversal of fortune plot, high on laughs, before delivering the final, strong, sucker punch of an ending in that one. More of that when I come to rewatch and review... Escape From The Planet Of The Apes.
* It has come to light since I wrote this review that Serling did not come up with the idea for the famous Statue Of Liberty reveal. Click on my review link below of the book Simians and Serialism for more details.
Planet Of The Apes @ NUTS4R2
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Planet Of The Apes TV Show (live action) - to be reviewed
Time Of The Apes - to be reviewed