Beneath the Planet of the Apes
d. Ted Post / 1970 / USA / 95 mins
It was inevitable that after the phenomenal success of Planet of the Apes, Fox would quickly instruct the producers to construct a sequel. There is the possibility that what followed could have intelligently explored the plight of the last intelligent human building a better future for his species, but it was not to be. Due to Fox studio executive Richard Zanuck’s refusal to believe the first film had been anything other than a meaningless action adventure (he would go on to produce Tim Burton’s remake), Beneath’s restriction to half the budget of its predecessor and its rushed development, what we are left with proved to be nothing more than a mildly enjoyable spin through the most well worn tropes of science fiction.
Charlton Heston (asTaylor) agreed to be in the film on condition that he would only have to do a minimal amount of filming and that his fee should be given to charity. To implement these demands, writers placed Heston’s scenes at the beginning and end of the film, but spent the majority of screen time following Heston look-a-like, James Franciscus as Brent.
The audience is taken through the motions of the first film once again as Brent’s ship (tailing Taylor’s trajectory) crash lands on the planet. With none of the original’s pacing intact we are pulled through the same events again, Brent meets Nova (Linda Harrison), discovers the ape community, is captured and subsequently rescued by the kindly chimpanzees Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (David Watson) in what seems like one sequence. The second act follows both Brent and the ape’s discovery of a colony of mutated humans. These survivors have endured the nuclear fallout, are living underground and have evolved the ability of telepathy. The apes, led by General Ursus (James Gregory) and Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) lead an invasion into the catacombs of what is left of New York to kill the mutated humans, with Brent and Taylor caught in-between.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes unwittingly undoes much of the good that was evident in the original. What remains surprising about the first is that the ape society is less barbaric than our own. The apes treat humans with arguably more concern and regard than we do to animals we consider inferior and Zaius’ religious dogmatism against the intelligence of humans is proved justified in the film’s final image. The story is only extraordinary in that Taylor is intelligent, the apparently horrific actions seen towards the humans are in fact normal and understandable (perhaps all the more frightening for being so) when the shock of being an outsider subsides. The portrayal of the apes at war runs contrary to these ideas. Their desire to fight may be understandable but to see their society willingly engaging in genocide removes any sympathies we may have had with the apes. If the concepts of war were dealt with more intelligence and subtlety then they may have been justified but there is little social relevance on show. Trite scenes where chimpanzees protest with placards and cheer “freedom” and “peace” meaninglessly do little to help distract from what is a violent picture not for the sake of political commentary but light entertainment.
The fact that the film further fractures the ape society into three separate groups of gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans (each with distinctive personality traits) contradicts the message of equality and civil rights that Planet of the Apes touted. The darker gorillas are depicted as primitive, violent and ignorant. What makes matters worse is that Don Pedro Colley (playing a mutant called Ono Goro in the script) is credited as “Negro”.
On a technical level the film manages to recapture none of the success of the first, while the principal characters’ prosthetics are as impressive as ever, budget constraints led to background characters wearing absurd monkey masks and the decision to have Maurice Evans and James Gregory in full body suits in a sauna scene approaches parody. It doesn’t help that Franciscus and Watson are either not given the opportunity or not able to outshine either Heston or McDowell in their respective roles.
Despite all of this, Beneath the Planet of the Apes is a mildly amusing sci-fi romp. It belongs much more readily to the ranks of B movies that Planet of the Apes somehow managed to avoid. The fact that it substitutes narrative cohesion for action means that it is at least entertaining and distracting; it has certainly been subject to far more attention by both critics and fans than it would have had, were it not for the overshadowing by its bigger brother.