Beneath the Planet of the Apes - Sci-Fi Classic Film Review
Beneath the POTA
A few months ago, I put up an unscientific poll on my YouTube channel asking people to rate their favorite of the four original Planet of the Apes sequels, and I was shocked that Beneath the Planet of the Apes won by a fairly spectacular margin. Therefore, going into it for the purposes of this review, I tried to keep an open mind, tried to tell myself that I must be missing something. However, after watching it again, I stand resolute in my opinion that Beneath the Planet of the Apes is not a very good sequel and that it is far inferior to at least two of the three subsequent sequels. If anything, my dislike for the film has actually increased.
Both Rod Serling and Pierre Boulle wrote multiple treatments for a potential sequel, but they were all rejected by the studio for not being "visually striking" enough. I personally have a hard time believing that those treatments were worse than the story we got, because Beneath the Planet of the Apes, narratively speaking, is a gigantic mess. There are some neat ideas in there, including the mutated humans living in the Forbidden Zone and the idea of highlighting the militaristic gorillas, which weren't the focus of the original film. However, there are also some unrepentantly stupid ideas, too, like the idea of making the mutants super psychic, having them literally worship a doomsday weapon (so cleverly called the "doomsday bomb"), and turning Dr. Zaius into an almost sympathetic hero compared to the new General Ursus.
None of this is helped by Charlton Heston's refusal to be a major part of the film, which forced the filmmakers to spend the entire first act retreading a lot of the same ground as the first movie, with a brand new astronaut who was on some kind of rescue mission (why, I have no idea, as the original crew knew they were moving drastically into the future as part of their exploratory mission into the cosmos) needing to be brought to speed on everything at an accelerated pace. For questionable story reasons, they cast someone who, if you squint just right, looks a bit like Charlton Heston, and combined with a drastically reduced budget, it makes Beneath the Planet of the Apes feel like a bargain bin knock-off of the original film.
The R.C. Cola version of Charlton Heston
It also lacks any sense of subtlety, turning the whole story into an obvious commentary on the Vietnam War (which was going on at the time), replete with teenage protesters and militaristic zealots. The words "military adventurism" are even in the film's actual dialogue, just in case the audience didn't notice the sledgehammer being used to make the point. I might be able to forgive this on-the-nose approach to the allegory if the story were actually good, but alas, it's not.
The movie loses the strong sense of intellectual nuance and clever allegories that made the first film such a timeless classic, and its lead, James Franciscus (as Brent), despite kind-of looking and sounding like Heston, is no Charlton Heston. He is forced to carry a lot of the film as the only speaking character in several scenes, and he just isn't up to the task, especially when he has to pretend to be suffering from ill-defined mental pain at the hands of the psychic underground mutants. Those scenes come across as painfully cheesy.
Ursus' costume is pretty cool
Perhaps even less forgiving is the absurdly convenient storytelling. Brent just happens to crash land right in the path that a roaming Nova takes after losing Taylor? Then, later, they just happen upon General Ursus giving an exposition dump explaining everything, how the apes plan to invade the Forbidden Zone based on weird occurrences in the Forbidden Zone that have absolutely nothing to do with the events of the first film? When Brent and Nova escape from the gorillas later in the film, they just happen to hide away in a heretofore never discovered subterranian tunnel on the outskirts of the Forbidden Zone that helpfully contains an ancient New York subway system that leads directly to the mutant settlement? I believe, as a general rule, a good story gets one free convenience, but any more than that will ruin suspension of disbelief and reveal the story to be the product of inept, lazy writing.
Even the ape make-up is a massive step down from the previous film (and is inferior to the next two sequels, which had even smaller budgets), with some scenes downright embarrassing in their reliance on pullover masks as opposed to prosthetic make-up. Cornelius, Zira, and Zaius still look good, but that's because they're reusing the same stuff from before, whereas the new major ape character, Ursus, looks much less professional and much more like a Halloween costume. Granted, when the mutants take off their human faces to reveal their true forms, that's pretty good, but it doesn't make up for the slipshod apes.
Gnarly, but still "G" rated
There is one retcon to the plot that I find infuriating: the change from Taylor and crew being the victims of the relativistic effects of time dilation (that, again, they knew about before they ever left Earth) to the time travel being the result of some undefined space anomaly. The only reason I can forgive this stupid plot point is that it left the door open ever so slightly for the franchise's immediate sequel, which--spoiler alert--is a much better film than this one.
I struggle to find good things to say about Beneath the Planet of the Apes, but I respect the balls it took to have that ending, where Taylor literally destroys the entire planet. It's fatalistic and nihilistic--perhaps making the movie more cynical than it needs to be--but that's a good way to shake up an audience, which is a noble goal. Then again, perhaps I'm giving the filmmakers too much credit, since the idea only came about because Heston wanted to ensure that there would be no more sequels after this one. Fortunately, his gambit didn't work, and next week, we'll start looking at a few better follow-ups to Planet of the Apes.
-e. magill 10/21/2021
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