Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) – Directed by Ted Post – Starring James Franciscus, Linda Harrison, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, David Watson, James Gregory, Paul Frees, Don Pedro Colley, Paul Richards, and Charlton Heston.
BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES is a mess, but it’s an admirable mess, and for the first half of the film it manages to be fairly interesting before the second half comes along and forces Big Message social commentary into a film that didn’t need it. BENEATH’s first half doesn’t really help its second half, and the second half doesn’t pay off the first; it’s a cinematic dichotomy where the set-up isn’t rewarded by the ending and the ending isn’t as powerful as it would be if the first half was spent laying the proper foundation.
When evaluating a film, I try to focus on what I liked and what I didn’t. I try to minimize any off-screen issues that might have a negative impact on a film because it’s the final product that matters most. With that being said, it’s hard to ignore the off-screen issues with BENEATH because the biggest star of PLANET OF THE APES is only around to guest star in the sequel. There’s nothing that says Charlton Heston has to come back and let the damn, dirty apes get their stinking paws all over him, and it’s to his credit (and producer Richard Zanuck’s determination to secure Heston’s services for the sequel) that he’s back, at all.
It could work. The way the movie uses Taylor is quite effective, actually. BENEATH opens with a replay of the end of APES, then picks up with George Taylor (Heston) and Nova (Linda Harrison) riding through the Forbidden Zone on horseback. They are beset upon by fire, and the side of a mountain that appears out of nowhere, and when Taylor goes to attack the mountain, it turns out to be an illusion that he falls through, disappearing from Nova’s sight.
Before he disappeared, Taylor told Nova that if something should happen to him that she was to go back to Zira (Kim Hunter), which is what she’s doing when she runs across a crashed spaceship from Earth, and the one surviving astronaut, Brent (James Franciscus).
And this is where we run into the first signs of the dichotomous problem with BENEATH. Because Taylor disappears and we’re introduced to Taylor Lite, we have to recover the ground we walked through in the first APES movie. That means more scenes of Brent trying to get the mute Nova to talk, of a human from our time seeing Ape City for the first time, of having anti-ape sentiments, and of bonding with Zira and Cornelius (David Watson). It’s repetitive, but it’s not uninteresting. Brent has been sent on a rescue mission to find Taylor and his crew, so he has a purpose for being here. With Taylor, Landon, and Dodge, it was just about survival, but Brent has a directive to complete, and that adds an urgency to his actions.
This also allows Brent a different kind of relationship with Nova, too; where Taylor, even after he developed feelings for her, largely treated her as an object, Brent needs her for help in finding the missing astronaut. This doesn’t mean he won’t grab her arm and pull her along like she can’t make a decision for herself, but she’s not just a hot chick on a horse. When Brent and Nova first discover the underground subway tunnels that have survived since the 20th century, Brent openly wonders if Nova is what humanity used to be before they learned to talk. “Did any good ever come from all that talk around all those tables?” he asks the universe.
It’s an interesting question, and given the social context of the time the film was made (late 1960s), the devolution to a simpler time when there was no war, no government, no gorillas with machine guns trying to kill us might have been tempting to some. Of course, that simpler time also had no medicine, no astronauts, and few women with Nova’s ability to ride a horse without messing up their make-up.
I don’t read BENEATH as desiring devolution; it’s a cautionary tale, reminding people that, to steal a phrase, “with great power comes great responsibility.” The films’ antagonists, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), General Ursus (James Gregory), and the ruling council of the underground humans, are focused on preserving or expanding their own power and have lost the responsibility that comes with the evolution of the intellect.
The first half of the movie also sees a return appearance from Zira and Cornelius, who have seemingly been integrated back into Ape City society without any repercussions from the first film. It’s great to see them, again, but after briefly helping Brent and Nova, they’re not heard from, again, which is another problem with the film’s second half.
Ursus is mounting an army expedition into the Forbidden Zone, and Zaius is tagging along because it’s his duty as the top scientist in the city to do this sort of thing. Effectively, however, the Ursus/Zaius expedition is just a way for the film to repeat the first film, when Zaius mounted an expedition to find Taylor.
Up until Brent and Nova find the subway, I was enjoying BENEATH, even if it was a bit repetitive. Once they enter the subway and start walking around a buried New York City, the film’s visuals increase their awesomeness at the inverse rate of the narrative’s decline. If nothing else, BENEATH is worth watching just for these sets, but it takes the narrative too long to get here. (It takes until the 40-minute mark of a 95-minute movie.) We’re also not sufficiently prepared, at all, for this change in the narrative. Yes, the movie shows us Taylor disappearing and tells us weird things are going on, but when the answer comes that it’s a bunch of telepathic humans who are total dicks … it’s a bit of a letdown.
The bit of social commentary that BENEATH wants to focus on is that every society has within it a weakness for self-interested violence. The gorillas wants to expand and the telepaths don’t want to be discovered; for both sides, the way to deal with a potentially hostile force is to just obliterate them. The telepaths capture and torture Brent and Nova, and there’s no balance to their treatment. There’s no Zira arguing for the time-lost human this time around.
What BENEATH needed to do to be successful, I think, is to give these advanced humans (who are worshipping an atomic bomb) some complexity. Instead, they’re so advanced and simply drawn they are nothing more than a threat. If you’re expecting Zaius to be less of a dick this time around and perhaps find some common ground with Taylor … nope. The moment that’s supposed to be shocking (the humans pull off their normal-looking faces to reveal scarred faces, damaged from the centuries of nuclear fallout, falls flat because they haven’t garnered any sympathy with the audience.
Instead of pushing the idea that apes and humans are just as flawed, the movie gives us the semi-surprise return of Taylor, the death of Nova, the murder of Brent, and then has Taylor detonate the telepaths’ atomic bomb, destroying the planet. (A planet, as Derrick Ferguson points out in the comments, he never liked, anyway.) One thing that APES did very well was give us a sense for ape society; BENEATH tries to do this with the telepath society, but it’s completely unconvincing. We don’t get to know anyone and we don’t see any of them be anything more than evil.
“We’re a peaceful people,” one of the telepaths insists after they’ve psychically tortured Brent multiple times. “We don’t kill our enemies,” he says, “we get our enemies to kill each other.”
It’s a nice line and a messed up philosophy, and perhaps if BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES had spent its 95 minutes exploring this idea, or Dr. Zaius’s plea to Zira that in dangerous times she needs to have a “truce with your convictions,” the sequel would have risen to the level of the first. As is, BENEATH is still an enjoyable flick. It’s a much more pulp version of the first film, with the emphasis on action over social commentary, which is perhaps why the ending doesn’t have the impact of the first film.
And if you’re blowing up the planet Earth, it really should.