Friday, July 29, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Titanic (1997)


We briefly interrupt the ongoing Ape-a-thon to return to our summer project, the Cameron Curriculum, and in particular, James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster, Titanic

As you may recall, Titanic was far-and-away the biggest movie event of the 1990s.  It was the highest grossing film of all time until beaten out by Cameron's Avatar in 2009, and it remained at the number one slot at the American box office for a whopping fifteen weeks. 

In the end, Titanic grossed nearly two billion dollars on a budget of two-hundred million. The film also earned Best Director and Best Picture Academy Awards for Cameron, plus ten more Oscars (including for composer James Horner).   The film currently ranks on AFI's top 100 movies of all-time list as well.  Impressively, Titanic elevated leads Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet to the ranks of super-stardom, and even gave singer Celine Dion a career renaissance.

In terms of Cameron's films, we've seen time and time again how this director adroitly crafts these giant, technically-accomplished, extremely emotional films, and Titanic is no exception.  In fact, Titanic may be Cameron's most "naked" film in terms of its effective and manipulative plucking of the heart strings.  

Specifically, he depicts a tale of first love between two enormously likable, star-crossed lovers, and then tears that young duo asunder so that viewers will connect meaningfully with the tragic events of April 15, 1912, the tragic sinking of the RMS Titanic

One character in the film, considering the Titanic disaster from the vantage point of the 1990s, observes that he never before really let "it in," and that's a big clue about Cameron's modus operandi here. 

He wants us to let it in, to let it wash over us in visceral, heart-pounding terms.  In this way, viewers can recognize and reckon with the human aspects of the disaster.

Titanic certainly took the world by storm in December of 1997, but as always when a film proves this big and popular some people find it fashionable to participate in a "backlash" against it.  Once more, it's the Woody Allen critique I delineated in regards to Avatar.  Some people simply won't be part of any club that has them for a member; and believe they can distinguish themselves by mocking/protesting/boycotting a popular film.   Again, this approach is different from disliking a film on artistic grounds. This is merely contrariness for the sake of it.

And yet the pull of James Cameron's Titanic -- like the ocean itself -- remains utterly irresistible.  The film immerses you in a very specific time period and a very specific place, and in the details of Rose and Jack's love story.  And then the movie puts you through the torments of Hell itself as the Titanic struggles to take its final breath before going under.  You'd have to be a stone to remain unmoved after the climax of this thrilling, heart-breaking film.

Before this week, I had not seen Titanic in over ten years.  I'd forgotten how powerfully it tugs at the audience's emotions.  There are some moments here as absolutely throat-tightening and uncomfortable as the drowning scene in Cameron's The Abyss (1989), and some moments that -- despite the girding of your heart against such sentimental manipulation -- prove absolutely affecting.

This is one of those big, entertaining Hollywood blockbusters where you can either play curmudgeon and stubbornly attempt to resist the tide, or let yourself be swept along into a compelling story, beautifully rendered. 

I recommend the latter approach.

A woman's heart is a deep ocean of secrets

When 101 year old Titanic survivor Rose (Gloria Stuart) learns that scavenger Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) has uncovered an eighty-four year old sketch from a safe aboard the sunken Titanic, she travels with her grand-daughter to sea, to the site of the sinking,  to learn more about the find. 

Meanwhile, Brock wishes to question Rose about the final disposition of a large diamond believed to be on the Titanic: the Heart of the Ocean.

As Rose soon reveals, she is the (nude) woman drawn in that sketch; the woman wearing the Heart of the Ocean. 

She then recounts the tale of Titanic's maiden voyage: Rose (Winslet) and her mother traveled aboard "the ship of dreams" with Rose's fiancee, the rich but cruel Cal Hockley (Billy Zane).   Rose felt trapped in her relationship with Cal and attempted suicide, but was saved from jumping into the sea by a third-class passenger and "tumbleweed blowing in the wind," Jack Dawson (Leonardo Di Caprio).

Jack and Rose fell deeply in love, even as Cal presented his betrothed with the diamond as an engagement gift. 

But Cal did not like to lose, and set his manservant, Lovejoy (David Warner) to frame Jack for larceny. 

But then everything changed when the speeding Titanic struck an iceberg at night, and the ship -- short on life boats -- began to sink.

Jack and Rose remained together through those harrowing final hours, rescuing and supporting one another, until the grand ship went down.  Because of Jack's final sacrifice, Rose survived.  And at his explicit urging, she went on to experience life fully in his absence.

Now, unbeknownst to Lovett, old Rose returns the Heart of the Ocean to the sea...a final gift to Jack, the man who helped set the course of her life.

It is unsinkable. God himself could not sink this ship.


The key to James Cameron's humanistic approach to the film's material can best be detected by comparing two vastly different "versions" of Titanic's sinking featured in the film.

The first such scene involves a computer-generated "simulation" of the disaster. Animated simply, and without much flourish beyond the technical requirements, this diagram reveals the "hows" and "whys" of the unsinkable passenger ship's final, terrible moments. The characters in the book-end sections of the film watch the simulation, and it only lasts for a matter of seconds. The simulation preps the audience for what is to come later in the film, but in no way expresses the human dimension -- the utter terror -- of the disaster.

The second sinking in Titanic occurs through the auspices of older Rose's still vivid memories, and is messy, emotional, unpredictable, and horrifying...and it lasts for approximately an hour. Watching the entire process from start to finish, it's as though the audience is actually aboard the "unsinkable" vessel as it goes under the surface, inch-by-agonizing-inch, moment-by-agonizing-moment, and there's nothing clean, orderly, or technical about it. The rote, mechanical of the computer simulation has been replaced by an unbearably tense depiction.

In the gulf between these two presentations of the sinking, Cameron asks the viewer to consider the human toll of the tragedy, not just the horrendous details of how it occurred. It's one thing to know that one thousand, five hundred and thirteen people perished in the sea that cold night in April in 1912; it's another thing to register visually what those numbers actually mean.

Because this is Cameron we're talking about, he's absolutely thorough in depicting the horror. The final hour of Titanic is thus harrowing, and deeply upsetting. An older married couple waits to drown in their bed, clutching one another tightly as the water spills into their cabin. A working class mother (Jenette Goldetein) puts her two young children to bed in their bunks on Titanic, knowing they will never awaken. A guilt-ridden captain maintains his post on the bridge while all around him, the sea rises.

In all these moments, there's the feeling underneath the action of (alarming) destiny fulfilled; of the inexorable flow of the water throughout the Titanic.  Indeed, the sea is a real "villain" in the film.  The makers of the Titanic show great pride and even arrogance about their creation, but ultimately they are humbled before the powers of the sea.  Technological barriers and safeguards gives way to water again and again in the film, and all the talk of Titanic being unsinkable is revealed as simply talk. 

One incredible shot reflects this truth best.  In the midst of the sinking, Cameron cuts back -- high into the sky -- to view the Titanic from a great distance and tremendous height.  The ship looks absolutely tiny and inconsequential against the surrounding, ubiquitous ocean, and in the dark, impenetrable night time.  This expressive shot represents a direct inversion of Cameron's early approach, which focused on low-angle shots enhancing the size and grandeur of the vessel.  Truth has supplanted human fiction.

In much more gory terms, Titanic makes us see the sea's (unfortunate) impact on human beings.  Desperate men and women fall from great heights (onto colossal propeller blades...), and bodies are crushed beneath the weight of voluminous steam pipes. At the time (and remember, this was before 9/11), modern movie audiences had not witnessed such destruction like this, at least not on such a personal, human scale.

To wit, many disaster films trade on an epic scope, and over-sized threats to human civilization (floods, asteroids, earthquakes, fires, etc.) but few such films seem so damn intimate about it. As is the case in all his films, Cameron has pinpointed the emotional key for his viewers to respond viscerally to the story matter and characters. He puts his characters into a situation from which there is no escape, and there is no sanctuary, even, to look away.  We've all booked passage on the ship of the damned.

Indeed, everybody knows how the story of Titanic ends, and yet Cameron wrings maximum suspense from the film's last hour, as Rose and Jack struggle -- seemingly endlessly - to survive a very, very bad day on the sea. There's great tension here between what the audience wants to see happen, and what the audience knows will happen.  Cameron exploits this gulf brilliantly, causing the audience to meditate about the ways human beings face (or deny to face...) death. 

Consider the Titanic's band, for instance, remaining together to perform on deck, despite the fact that the end is nigh.   By showcasing such odd, uniquely human moments, Cameron forces the audience to confront its own mortality.  What would you do with your last minutes of life?  How would you, as Jack might say, "make every moment count?"

Beyond this meditation on facing imminent death, Titanic is a love story about two people from vastly different worlds.  As we have seen in several Cameron films, the director appears to boast an affinity for blue collar characters, and here he dramatically showcases the differences between Jack's third class world and Rose and Cal's first class one.

The largest steam passenger ship in the world, Titanic is where these two worlds collide.  To the rich, Titanic is a "ship of dreams" and a world of complete luxury, down the presence of a private gym and private observation decks.  To the crew and third class passengers, however, Titanic is a veritable "slave ship," as workers toil "beneath decks" in an inhumanly-proportioned, bronze-hued engine room.  One population aboard Titanic  is thus dedicated to its own leisure; and one is dedicated to serving the rich.

Clearly, this dynamic rankles, and again, it's a way of generating passionate emotions in the audience.  No one like to see a system that is so patently unfair (though we should probably get used to it, given the direction of our country these days...).

Cameron does a fine, affecting job of delineating the differences between these two worlds and how, literally, these differences represent the difference between life and death.  One thousand and two-hundred and twenty-one of the approximately fifteen hundred deaths from Titanic came from the ranks of either third class passengers or the crew.  Less than three hundred came from the first class.  That figure tells a story, and Cameron aptly makes note of the inequity.  Clearly, some lives were cherished above others, and sadly that's often the story of America, even today, isn't it?  The rich few own most of the nation's treasure at this point, and also get the good seats on the life boat if there's a national crisis. 

Cal Hockley himself carries this view, noting of his first class brethren that "we are royalty."   And as Rose notes of this class of men: "they love money."  Yep.  A dozen years ago this moustache-twirling depiction of the uber-rich might have looked exaggerated or even two-dimensional.  Given the debate today about asking the rich to give up their Bush Tax cuts while we're involved in two wars and a Great Recession...not so much.  Cal is entirely believable.

In Titanic, Jack is afforded the opportunity to visit the first class dining room after rescuing Rose from danger, and he is warned "you're about to go into the snake pit."   That seems about right.

He is not readily accepted there, especially by Cal, and the others treat him as a source of entertainment or amusement -- the dinner guest flavor of the day

Then, after dinner, Jack invites Rose below decks for a "real" party, and she visits the third class world.  It is a place of emotions, laughter, dance, music and community.  Cameron reveals this distinction by cutting to an immediacy-provoking point-of-view perspective during Jack and Rose's dance.  This less formal shot; one that puts us literally inside "the eyes" of a character in the play, broadcasts the approachability of this class of people.  The staid dinner is usurped by a raucous party.  A world of sedentary manners and protocol superseded by one of constant movement and life.

As she is all too aware of, Rose lives in a gilded cage until Jack breaks her out of it.  But -- interestingly -- it is the third class Jack who ultimately gives his life for first-class Rose, when only one of them can survive.  This is not a comment on Rose's superiority as a fist class person, finally, but of Jack's. 

He is chivalrous and honorable and decent, and dies to save the woman he loves.  "Royalty," in the personage of Cal, tricks his way onto a lifeboat by grabbing an abandoned child and claiming to be his father, "all that he has left" in the world. 

The message is: when push comes to shove, you can't trust the first classers, whereas, by and large, you can rely on men like Jack.  They have already made some accommodation, it seems, with their fate and their destiny.  Therefore, Cal joins the ranks of Cameron villains such as Carter Burke: a man who puts himself above all other considerations, right up until the end.

Last week in the Cameron Curriculum, one of my wonderful readers and commenters here, DLR, noted the paternalistic quality of many Cameron films.  In other words, "virtually all of his female central characters are mostly passive or retiring until males affect their reality."  This is an interesting spin on the strong women characters in Cameron's work, and it strongly applies to Rose in Titanic

As Rose readily acknowledges of Jack, "he saved me... in every way that a person can be saved."  In other words, it was Rose's experience with Jack -- and her promise to Jack -- that shaped Rose into the strong person she became following the disaster at sea.    She is a woman trapped between two worlds, two men, and two paths, and her personal strength arises, I think, from her capacity to choose wisely.  So she is strong, yes, but her strength is also colored by her experience with Jack and his ability to "see her."  This very strongly echoes the Sarah Connor/Kyle Reese relationship in the original Terminator (1984).  In both situations, a man inspires a woman to fight-- and to change her life.  And in both cases, the man doesn't survive to see her do it.

Jack also fulfills Cameron's often-utilized "outsider" role, bursting into high society and puncturing the haughty atmosphere there. Old Rose, herself, is something of an outsider, alone among those on Lovett's ship to have been aboard Titanic, and to have seen the object of their quest: the Heart of the Ocean.  She also rejects the materialism of Lovett's quest (the search for the diamond) and gives up the jewelry as a gift to Jack, who she sees, quite rightly, as the Heart of the Sea.

We're just a few short months from the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, and a re-release of Cameron's film in 3-D.   This re-release will be a chance for a new generation to engage with a pop culture phenomenon from the 1990s, and I'll be curious to see how that generation thinks it stacks up to Avatar.  

And as I've indicated above, some of the class differences that we wrote off as being from a different time period in the 1990s have re-asserted themselves powerfully in this decade. It's very possible that Titanic will speak to a more welcoming audience now, even, than it did in 1997.   

In many ways, Titanic certainly represents a big leap for Cameron.  It is his first film outside of the sci-fi/horror groove he had established up to that point in his career, and Titanic doesn't feature much by way of his normal color or texture palette (usually hard, blue, steels and metals.) 

But by adhering to his own thematic obsessions (strong women, class warfare, outsiders, etc.) he crafted a film that appealed to his biggest audience yet, despite the requisite backlash I wrote of above.

Because Titanic was so popular, so big, some people loved it, and some people couldn't stand it.  Place me in the former camp, even all these years later, after having seen it twice. 

Basically, you can splash around about the manipulative, emotional, big-hearted  nature of Titanic all you want, but if you watch it again with an open mind and an innocent heart, the movie will surely pull you into its wake. 


Next Friday: True Lies (1994)

FROM THE ARCHIVE: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)


The fourth film in the Planet of the Apes motion picture cycle is also the most overtly violent and controversial entry you'll discover in the classic, five-strong franchise.

Schaffner's original Planet of the Apes (1968) offered an anti-nuke, pro-peace message to top them all with that trademark, shocking Statue of Liberty climax. The fallen, rusted Lady Liberty was a tragic visual reminder that man had ruined himself and his posterity over clashing fleeting political ideologies (CCCP vs. U.S.A.). "God damn you all to Hell!"

Even Beneath The Planet of the Apes (1970) -- the sophomore series entry which ended in the Earth's final obliteration -- was anti-violence in thematic thrust. The first sequel gazed at the polarization between races -- in this case simian and mutant races -- and suggested that if we didn't all learn to "get along" (and get over our naive belief that our team is God's Chosen...) our world would become but a burned-out, lifeless cinder. Dark? Indeed. But encouraging of violence....certainly not. The film even featured the equivalent of college-age, Vietnam War Era, pro-peace protesters. Only in this topsy-turvy world, they were intellectual chimpanzees...

By contrast, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes -- written by Paul Dehn (and based on characters by Pierre Boulle) -- is dramatically different in both tone and theme from these cinematic predecessors.

The best of the four sequels to Planet of the Apes -- and a great science fiction film even as a stand-alone venture -- director J. Lee Thompsons' film suggests in unblinking, brutal terms that in the case of subjugation, oppression, slavery and injustice, violent revolution is the only solution to rectify the problem. In the words of the film, despotic masters won't be kind until they are "forced" to be kind. To force kindness, your people have to be free. To have freedom...you must possess power.  To possess power, you must revolt!

This notion of violent revolution as panacea to matters of social inequality in America didn't just arise from the ether. Like all great works of art, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, released in 1972, strongly reflects the time period during which it was produced. And from 1965 through the early 1970s, the United States suffered a number of debilitating, disturbing and violent race riots in many of its most populous urban areas. Some African-Americans took up arms, looted merchants, and destroyed property in an attempt to express their grievances with the social injustice they witnessed and endured.

The Watts Riots occurred in Los Angeles in the year 1965, and 4,000 rioters were arrested by the police. 34 rioters were killed, and over 1,000 were injured. A political commission convened after the riot judged that the outbreak of violence had been caused by the following conditions: racial inequality in Los Angeles, a high jobless rate, bad schools, heavy-handed police tactics, and pervasive job and housing discrimination.

The LAPD chief at the time of the lawlessness didn't exactly help calm things down either. He referred to the rioters as "monkeys in the zoo," according to Social Problems, 1968, pages 322-341. As silly as that may sound, that very description -- of rioters as monkeys -- is literally translated in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

The Watts Riots did not represent an isolated incident, either. There was also the Washington D.C. Riot of 1968, the Baltimore Riot of the same year, and the Chicago Riot too. And -- perhaps most dramatically -- there was the so-called "Detroit Rebellion" of 1967 which lasted for five days (during a hot July) and saw 7,200 arrests, 40 million dollars worth of property damage, and over 2,000 buildings burned to the ground. The root causes of this violent spree were -- again after the fact -- deemed the same as those that had been observed in Watts. Unemployment by blacks doubled that of whites (15.9% to 8%) in Detroit; the community had little access to adequate medical facilities; there was distinct "spatial segregation" in the city; and 134,000 jobs had been lost over the previous decade-and-a-half.

In toto, half-a-million people were involved in the various race riots of the late 1960s. To contextualize that sum total, this number is equivalent to the number of American soldiers serving in the War in Vietnam. (Planet of the Apes as American Myth, Eric Greene, 1998, page 79). This huge figure alone should put truth to the lie that the riots were but isolated incidents, or somehow simply involved career criminals. Clearly, this was a social movement, not a crime spree.

From this turbulent era of violence, riot and protest was formulated Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, a sci-fi film which projects an ape slave uprising in technological North America in the far-flung future year of 1991.

As also suggested by author Greene, the film's text is actually "key for re-reading the Watts Riots as a justifiable reaction to intolerable oppression, rather than just an outbreak of lawless abandon." (Planet of the Apes as American Myth, Eric Greene, 1998, page 16). In Dehn's script, the rebelling apes are even specifically referred to as "rioters."

Shot on the futuristic-looking campus of the University of California at Irvine, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is set in "the future," in an America that has transformed itself into a rigid, fascist state. Nightly curfews are enforced rigorously. Heavily-armed police officers patrol the streets. American citizens are subjected to torture by the State (via a device called an authenticator) without any respect to due process of law. Announcements to citizens by the "Watch Commander" play regularly in the background on the heaivily-guarded city streets...the ubiquitous voice of Big Brother. Labor demonstrations and gatherings are ruthlessly put down by military police.

Because all dogs and cats have died (killed by a space plague in 1985), apes have replaced these beloved animals. First as beloved pets but now as slaves.

These slave apes are "conditioned" to obey human masters, and are punished via "conditioning" when they fail in their tasks or simply don't perform fast enough.

A populist human movement resists the enslavement of apes...because the simians are (involuntarily) taking away their jobs. GO HUMAN, NOT APE, reads one placard. SLAVES ARE SCABS reads another. UNFAIR TO WAITERS screams one more.

We saw signs and visceral protests like this in District 9 (2009) too: a nativist fear that ethnic "newcomers" are here to steal jobs, depress wages and tax our already overburdened system.

In Conquest of the Planet of the Ape's dynamite, extended opening sequence -- shot entirely in the shadow of 1970s "futurism" architecture -- the viewer is introduced to the rules and locales of this cold, fascist world. Apes are trained en mass in the public square, running a gauntlet of tasks at the bidding of armed, uniformed masters. They are constantly instructed and disciplined in cruel terms. "Go!" "No!" "Do!" It is the ape's job to serve, but not to question. The slaves are also forced to breed, but not allowed to maintain families.

In keeping with the overarching metaphor of the race riots in America, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes further contextualizes the apes' 1991 slavery in terms of the historical African-American experience in our country.

We see, for instance, a racially-charged image of prejudice: a slave ape obediently shining his master's shoes (a shoeshine boy). We also see apes transported from their native habitats (Borneo) against their will to serve in the United States, via ships. Again, this is an echo of Ghana's "Gate of No Return," and the involuntary journey of many slaves from Africa to our shores...as prisoners.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes even depicts slave apes in neck shackles, and auctioned off in a public square to the highest human bidder. If you've ever toured the Old Slave Mart in Charleston, SC, you'll recall that such auctions are not fiction; and that Conquest of the Planet of the Apes does not exaggerate the plight or treatment of slaves in our history.

Conquest of the Planet of the Ape's screenplay draws specific parallels to the African-American experience, not merely with these resonant images, but also in the presentation of an African-American character named MacDonald (Hari Rhodes) who serves as the aide to Governor Breck.

McDonald is sympathetic to the ape cause and the ape leader, Caesar (Roddy McDowall) notes that McDonald "above all people," should understand him. "Above all people" is an explicit verbal reminder of MacDonald's racial identity and status as the descendant of a black slave.

Later, one of the oppressive aides in Governor Breck's dictatorial regime notes that the compassionate McDonald must be an "ape lover." Not to be excessive, but this is a variation of the ugly epithet "nigger lover." Another aide replies caustically (about McDonald), "Don't it figure?" Again, these are veiled, bigoted references to McDonald's skin color and his heritage as a black man. Governor Breck even terms MacDonald a "bleeding heart," equating him with the position of civil-rights-fighting "liberal" in this battle.

The villain of the piece, Governor Breck (Don Murray) finally informs ape leader Caesar why he hates apes, and his detailed explanation is one built on the backbone of racial hatred; a belief that the "other" (black man or ape...) is inferior to him. Breck calls Caesar "the savage who must be shackled in chains...You poison our guts. When we hate you, we're hating the dark side of ourselves."

Our question becomes: is Breck referring to the "dark side" of human nature (which certainly doesn't seem to fit the kindly, innocent apes; especially those like Lisa...), or is the governor actually making another coded statement about skin color. "The dark side" might actually be interpreted to mean dark-skinned.

What remains rather audacious about Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is that most audiences -- white, black, what-have-you -- register the subjugated apes (and Caesar) as the unambiguous heroes of the piece; as the wronged party, even though it is the entire human race that stands to lose in any violent revolution.

Perhaps such reflexive identification with the underdog, with the exploited, speaks to the inherent goodness and fairness of the American people. Intellectually, we immediately reject racism and oppression, and so therefore easily sympathize with the put-upon, subjugated apes. Yet, ironically, that's not at all what happened regarding the real life riots of the 1960s. Nixon's "silent majority" found it easier to disregard the rioters as lawbreakers and opportunists than acknowledge them as fighters against injustice; fighters for equal rights in American cities of consdierable social disparity. Of course, a movie allows us to experience things that we don't see or understand in real life. As viewers, we saw in Conquest torture, degradation, inequality and other moral sins. But how many of us went to Watts to live? Or Detroit?

At 88 minutes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is a short, fast and brutal film, but it is also one of the most effective and direct science-fiction movies of the era. Many of the visuals reinforce the pervasive theme of governmental subjugation.

I'm particularly fond of an artful shot that visually "entraps" Caesar and his kindly master, Armando (Ricardo Montalban) within the parted, uniformed legs of an armed soldier. The images tells us how the State surrounds and dominates the characters.

I also appreciate the manner in which the inspirational Caesar wordlessly transmits his message of total resistance (and then rebellion...) to his kindred ape slaves. Caesar simply appears on the scene (sometimes in close-up; sometimes in medium shot), and then there's a quick pan and zoom to a slave ape...and then the slave ape very actively rebels; dumping garbage, dropping books, even starting a fire. This brand of cause-and-effect shot is repeated again and again in the latter half of the movie, and it's a perfect visual signifier for the notion that you can't kill a powerful idea. Now, Caesar can't literally be everywhere at once; but his message of freedom and liberty transmits at light speed across the slave population. The visual approach reveals how powerful and widespread the idea of liberty can be in a population that lacks it.

The final sequence of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes depicts the specifics of the ape uprising. It is a clash between riot police (with shields, guns, and helmets) and armed, screeching, enraged apes. This extended, and very violent sequence diagrams "the slave's right to punish his persecutor." The sequence ends with mankind fallen, and Caesar assuming command, ironically, from the pulpit of the human civic center. Behind him -- in the background of the frame -- skyscrapers burn out of control.

Again, given the context of the Detroit Rebellion or the Watts Riots, this image is meaningful. People watching the nightly news during those real-life conflagrations had also witnessed "the night of the fires" as Caesar called it, and wondered: would order be restored? Or was this the dawn of a new order? The order of the oppressed...

20th Century Fox apparently grew concerned that Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was too overtly a political film., and took steps to de-fang the social commentary it offered.

In the original, scripted ending (available now on blu-ray), Caesar announced, basically, that pes would now rule the world just as cruelly as man had ruled it. But a last minute bit of post-production editing changed the tenor of Caesar's pronouncement. After his anger is released Caesar relents and notes that even the inhuman (the apes...) can prove "humane" in their domination over mankind. It's a quick philosophical turnaround and doesn't entirely work. In fact, your head may spin from the shift. But still, you can understand the compromise. The studio didn't want Conquest of The Planet of the Apes -- in the environment of race riots -- to be interpreted as an incitement to real-life violence.

Still, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes ends on a haunting, unforgettable note. Flames consume the the futuristic city, and the planet of the apes is born. And as the end credits roll, the screeching of the victorious apes continues unabated. No closing music softens this shrill sound. The night of the fires continues into an unknown future...

So, is Conquest of the Planet of the Apes really pro-violence? Or is it simply pro-slave? In an interesting sense, the answer is undeniably affirmative: it is pro-violence. Thomas Jefferson once explained that "experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms (of government) those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.”

We see that tyranny clearly depicted here: the America of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes exists for the glorification for the rich and powerful at the expense of liberty and freedom for all. Breck's administration is positively despotic (and he's running for President!) And Thomas Jefferson's prescribed cure for tyranny was not unlike Caesar's in the film; the steadfast belief that "every generation needs a new revolution."

So Conquest of the Planet of the Apes re-interprets the Watts Riots and other race violence of the 1960s as one possible and even legitimate response to entrenched racial inequality in America. Caesar tells Mr. McDonald that the only means left to him and his people (the apes) is, indeed, revolution. "We cannot be free until we have power. How else can we achieve it?"

MacDonald then insists that Caesar's attempt at revolution is doomed to failure. "Perhaps, this time," Caesar replies, indicating that this initial riot will not be the last attempt. This response further contextualizes the race riots in America: they exist not as separate, individual, isolated incidents of rampant lawlessness...but as organized, necessary steps along the pathway from slavery to freedom, to total equality.

I realize it is controversial to equate a science-fiction film about "apes" to the Black experience in American history, yet that's precisely the comparison Conquest of the Planet of the Apes forges, as I hope the images in this post, and my contextual examples, reveal. The result is an incendiary, subversive and endlessly intelligent film; one that asks us to gaze at what Caesar calls a myth: "the idea that human beings are kind."

Like District 9 (2009), Conquest of The Planet of the Apes judges man by the way he treats those populations he controls or dominates. Namely the slaves, the minorities, the immigrants, or the ethnic "others."

In both films, there's an implied warning to entrenched power (one made much more overt in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes):  The tables can be turned. Or worse, over-turned...
 
One week from today, Rise of the Planet of the Apes -- a remake of Conquest -- bows in theaters.  I have no doubt in my mind, having viewed the trailers, that the racial subtext of the 1970s version has been replaced.  The new apes film is about "science run amok" on a large scale, a medical "miracle" that enhances ape intelligence.   Don't tamper in God's domain!   
 
Apparently, race relations in America is not on the new film's mind, though we can't judge for sure until we view Rise.   It will be interesting to see if the new template works, and if the new film lives up to the original franchise's rich legacy of social commentary. 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

FROM THE ARCHIVE: Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)


"Time can only be fully understood by an observer with a god-like gift of infinite regression."

- Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) discusses the dark, turbulent corridors of time in Escape from the Planet of the Apes.

Some movie critics have described 1971's Escape from the Planet of the Apes as the most light-hearted film in the original five-strong Ape film series.  This is so because the film treads deeply into fish-out-of-water humor as ape-o-nauts Zira and Cornelius attempt to fit in with 20th century human (and celebrity) culture.

But that welcome sense of humor doesn't survive the film's finale: a blazing, go-for-broke valedictory gut punch.  Specifically, at the film's climax, the audience is exposed to a number of truly disturbing images:

First, kindly chimpanzee psychologist, Zira (Kim Hunter) is shot in the back several times while running away from her assailant.  Next, a villainous scientist, Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) empties his gun into the body of Zira's baby (presumably), and we see the bullet-ridden, bloody blanket in close-up.  Then, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), Zira's beloved husband -- standing atop a high deck on a rusty ship -- kills Hasslein and we see the blood erupt out of his chest as a bullet strikes him.

In short order, a police sniper shoots Cornelius, and we watch in agonizing close-up as this beloved character, this pacifist chimpanzee, gasps repeatedly for air, plummets from his perch, and smashes hard onto the deck below. He lands with an unforgettable thud.

The most disturbing portion of this death scene is the close-up McDowall's character: Cornelius's lungs have been punctured, and we see him register, shock, confusion, and pain as the terminal nature of his wounds take effect, and he struggles for more air.

Finally, the bloodied Zira -- after dumping her baby's corpse into polluted-looking water -- crawls desperately to her husband's side and quietly dies beside him. Then there's a dramatic pull-back -- the cinematic equivalent of a "Holy Shit" -- as the camera retracts in horror from this orgy of violence perpetrated against, unarguably, the franchise's most beloved and gentle characters.

And yes, this move is Rated G. For "General Audiences." 

I've never forgotten this brutal climax to Don Taylor's third entry in the POTA franchise, and it's probably the reason I don't watch this film as often as I do the original 1968 film, or Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Cornelius and Zira are such kind, innocent, loving beings and throughout the film, they literally wear their hearts on their sleeves. This quality of sincerity makes them very open with strangers ("I like you," Zira tells one of their captors, the kindly Dr. Lewis [Bradford Dillman]). Yet it also makes them impulsive.

This quality of total honesty and openness means Zira doesn't know any better than to tell her human captors EVERYTHING about her work in the distant future, including her experimentation on dumb and mute humans. And Cornelius also reacts impulsively (but protectively) when Zira -- following a torture session by Hasslein -- is insulted by an orderly. Cornelius kills the boy in an instant of fleeting rage.

Considering all of this material now, I still can't believe how unremittingly, how authentically dark Escape from the Planet of the Apes remains.  The humor of the early part of the film is deceptive.  It only serves to enhance our connection to Zira and Cornelius, to reflect on how two strangers in a strange land seem so willing to embrace humanity, despite everything they know about it.

What I hadn't taken full notice of, perhaps, in my previous viewings of the film, is just how skilled and indeed how artistic, the film remains, in the support of such a rather bleak tale. I had always boasted an unspoken bias against Escape since it is the only Planet of the Apes entry set in "our time," meaning no need for much by way of special effects, make-up or futuristic production design.

The film also features markedly less action than both of its silver screen predecessors. Having seen the film for so many years on television (in Pan-and-Scan), and not the more impressive wide-screen version, I had often even considered the film ugly-looking, especially in respect to the other impressive films in the franchise.

Now, however, I see matters a little differently. Don Taylor makes great use of the rectangular movie  frame in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, forging a number of remarkable compositions in the process. One of the finest examples of his work opens the film.

We start with a landscape view of a timeless ocean, bracketed on the left by a jagged mountain. This image plainly recalls the post-apocalyptic Forbidden Zone, rocky shore-line and Statue of Liberty-ending of Planet of the Apes. But before we can contemplate this particular (and familiar...) vision for too long, a contemporary helicopter unexpectedly juts into frame from the left, making audiences aware that we have returned to our Earth of the present. This is a great tie-in to the previous films; one of great visual consistency for the series. It's exactly the opening shot we would expect of a Planet of the Apes sequel...but with a unique twist.

In terms of visualizations, Taylor's direction also makes a case for our eyes that the human world (soon to die in a nuclear conflagration...) is already half-dead.

The apes from the future are welcomed to this world as heroes and celebrities, but soon are tortured and mistreated by agents of the U.S. military-industrial complex. Accordingly, Zira and Cornelius go from staying at luxurious hotel rooms to utilitarian military bases, finally to a forgotten, rusted ship-yard that represents the wasteful, ruined, industrial infrastructure of a bloated human society living on borrowed time. Zira attempts to nurse her baby inside an abandoned ship there, and the vessel is a total wreckage. So what we get visually is an odd visual conjunction of birth and dying in the same frame.

In terms of visual aplomb, Taylor also evidences a real preference for images which note the apes' entrapment and ultimate doom here in our 20th century culture. A preponderance of shots reveal the endangered apes through bars, window frames, door-frames or other enclosures that suggest, at least implicitly, their snare.

Even the film's final shot adopts this stance; an appropriate touch since it occurs at the prehistory of ape enslavement in human culture, essentially. I should add, the shot also adopts the high-angle perspective frequently, and in film grammar, that shot is also a signifier of doom.

Thematically, I also appreciate the way that Escape from the Planet of the Apes is structured as a mirror-image of the original, only carefully flipping the ape/human dynamics.

Three astronauts travel through time in both stories. Kindly "animal" psychologists tend to the astronauts in both stories -- in direct contradiction to the rules of the prevailing, cruel society -- and there are also early casualties amongst the space travelers in both Escape and Planet. In Escape's presidential commission or "panel of inquiry," there's even a resonance of Planet of the Apes' famous "See/Speak/Hear No Evil" Tribunal.  For a film that cloaks itself, at least initially as a comedy, this mirror-image approach is downright crafty.

What's even more genuinely commendable about Escape from the Planet of the Apes is the film's central theological and philosophical argument. To wit, Hasslein discusses the nature of time and destiny. "Time is like a freeway, a freeway with an infinite number of lanes. All leading from the past into the future. However not the same future." He tells us. "It follows that a driver -- by changing lanes -- can change his future."

But then in a conversation with the President of the United States (William Windom in a terrific, ultra-slick performance), Hasslein admits that he wonders about his next course of action. Apes will take over the world if Zira and Cornelius are allowed to raise their baby. Hasslein thus wants to sterilize the parents and abort the baby. But -- as he aptly puts it -- "which future has God -- if there is a God -- chosen for our future?" In killing the talking apes, is Hasslein an instrument of God's plan, or an enemy of God's plan?

The President brings up the famous Hitler time-travel conundrum in response. Would we kill Hitler in the womb, knowing what we know of the man and his war crimes? Would he kill his remote ancestors? The President's answer is one of political buck-passing. When told that talking apes will dominate Earth's future, he notes sardonically, "I doubt that we shall still be in office by then."

This thematic conceit sees a deliberate reflection in a character introduced in the final act, the circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban). Armando states that he despises those who try to intervene in destiny, and act against God's plan. And furthermore, that if it is man's fate to be dominated by intelligent apes, then he hopes those apes are as kind as Zira and Cornelius.

Essentially, we have two opposing points of view here: pre-determinism (Armando) vs. free will (Hasslein).

Or to put it another way, Hasslein desires to "change lanes" in order avoid a terrible future for human beings. Armando prefers to believe that we're not even driving the car; that God has us on cruise control of sorts. Changing lanes is futile, if it isn't in God's scheme.

Interestingly, the very words of Zira and Cornelius, regarding "future" ape history, inform us a bit more about the shape of this argument. The two kindly chimps insist that, according to their Sacred Scrolls, pet apes went from doing tricks to performing services in two centuries. And that they turned the tables on their human oppressors in another three centuries.

In other words, in the world that Zira and Cornelius arise from (and which Taylor visited) it takes 500 years for harried apes to develop the power of speech and become conscious to the philosophical concepts of slavery and freedom, unity and corporate action. This long period of "dawning realization" may occur because there is no real intelligent leader of the movement. Insurrection, revolution and a new order must arise through the crucible of experience; through evolution. Through generations of slavery.

But by "changing lanes," by traveling back in time, Zira and Cornelius have altered destiny (and their own history). Now, their child -- an intelligent ape -- will bring about the same pro-ape revolution in decades, not centuries. So the future has indeed been changed. It has been hastened.

But the irony of this is Hasslein's role. He acts to kill the baby of the taking apes, and the world believes he has succeeded in his quest. Thus the hunt for Zira and Cornelius's child ends permanently...at least until a paranoid governor named Breck picks it up twenty years later...when it is too late. By acting to destroy the threat now, by believing he can "change lanes," Hasslein has also hastened the very future he hoped to avoid (the pre-determined future?). The apes will take over his world; and they will do it much sooner than they would have without his witch-hunt. Perhaps God has played a trick on the vain scientist. The outcome was never in doubt; only the scheduling of it.

Interestingly, the final film in the original five-strong movie, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, returns to this theme.  There, Virgil (Paul Williams) also suggests that there are multiple paths (or lanes) to different futures.   This is important to Caesar -- as we shall see -- because he wants to avoid the end of the world that Zira and Cornelius witnessed (the ending of Beneath.)

Critics are always quick to note the pointed social commentary in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and indeed, there's much there. Zira gives a bra-burning speech to a Bay Area Women's Club, striking a feminist chord right at the time that second-wave feminism was really entering the American bloodstream. "The marriage bed is made for two," she declares to rousing applause, "But every damn morning it's the woman who has to make it."

Similarly, Cornelius attends a boxing prize fight, and is horrified by the overt brutality of the event. By contrast, the humans don't seem to be horrified by this violence in the slightest. They cheer as the fighters pummel one another. Oppoistely, the humans do take great exception to the violence Zira inflicts on human experimental subjects...in the year 3955 AD. The same humans who decry Zira's lab experiments in the distant future are also the first to decide on her draconian personal disposition: sterilization after a state-enforced abortion. Given this scenario, Escape from the Planet of the Apes involves human hypocrisy. Or as Zira notes. "We've met hundreds of humans since we've been here. And I trust three."

There's also much underlying commentary in Escape from the Planet of the Apes about the American media and pop culture, and how it proves so damn fickle. At first, Cornelius and Zira capture the hearts of "the voters" (as the President states). For a while, they are the toast of the town. Why, they even go to Disneyland to dedicate a "new boat " in the "jungle cruise."

Within a few weeks, however, the apes are spirited to an undisclosed location, and eventually murdered. The culture that worshipped them has apparently forgotten all about them; moved on to different bread and circuses, apparently.

The message: souls as honest and gentle as Zira and Cornelius get snuffed out in this media "circus" (as opposed to Armando's more compassionate circus, a place of sanctuary).

Ultimately, Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a bridge between the first two films in the series and the last two. It is the only one not set in the future. It is also the movie, in a sense, that makes the entire Planet of the Apes series possible, since it "resurrects" characters from a destroyed Earth of the future and delivers them (and young Caesar...) into the 20th century timeline where the ascent of the apes will soon occur. For all these reasons, Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a strong entry -- and a necessary one -- in the five-strong franchise. But more than that, it's a pretty damn fine film in its own right.

And I still find it intensely traumatizing. Cornelius and Zira are golden hearts, to appropriate a descriptor from director Lars von Trier. We have witnessed their decency and humanity in Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and here in their last film too. To kill off such sweet, beloved characters in such brutal, unblinking fashion is almost sadistic. But the point about the cruelty of the current human culture is effectively made.

In truth, the enduring power of Escape from the Planet of the Apes probably arises from the vivid, unforgettable, bloody ending. This is a Fin de siècle film. The human world is ending; a rusted, industrial nightmare of decay and bloat, and soon to take even further hits (the death of pets by space plague is just ten years off in this time-line, for instnace).

Even the film's final image is haunting, bizarre and a little surreal. A baby ape -- the real child of Zira and Cornelius -- is behind bars at Armando's circus. Shouting plaintively; calling for "Mama." (And voiced by the late, great Walker Edmiston).

Planet of the Apes is an intellectual franchise first and foremost, a series about scintillating, stimulating, even provocative ideas.  There's almost a bloodthirsty-aspect to the films and their treatment of beloved characters, especially in Beneath and Escape.

Not exactly a barrel full of monkeys.


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)



Only a handful of sequels in cinema history have managed to live up to, let alone surpass, the quality of the first film in a prospective franchise.  We all know the parameters of this debate -- and also the examples --very well: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Aliens (1986), The Godfather Part II (1972), and perhaps The Road Warrior (1982). 

You'll notice that Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), the first sequel to 1968's Planet of the Apes, doesn't make that short list. 

To be certain, Beneath is not a bad film. Perhaps, given a little perspective, it's even a pretty good one.  But in terms of the franchise, director Ted Post's sortie simply can't live up to the memory created by Schaffner's watershed, landmark original. 

Where Planet of the Apes was sprawling, brawny, and intricate in visual presentation, Beneath the Planet of the Apes feels mundane and a little rote by comparison.   Where Apes shocked and awed us with its amazing, special-effects presentation of an original new world, Beneath is largely satisfied (at least in its first half...), to a stage a simple return trip to Ape-ville.

This critical assessment does not mean, however, that Beneath the Planet of the Apes is less than a valuable piece of the five movie cycle.  It is that indeed.  The second film introduces to the franchise a dedicated enemy for the apes: the underground mutant dwellers of NYC.   And with the introduction of General Ursus, the film more fully diagrams the Ape culture's caste system.  The gorillas really did not play a very prominent part in Planet of the Apes, but here they take their rightful place in the hierarchy as the militaristic, aggressive drivers of ape politics and policy.

Perhaps the sense of disappointment Beneath the Planet of the Apes invariably provokes may simply result from the fact that it had a very, very high benchmark to surpass.  Regardless, the two most obvious concerns with Beneath the Planet of the Apes are these:

First, in direct contrast to the original, the action scenes in Beneath are largely underwhelming and poorly staged. 

And secondly, the sequel simply does not lead with its strongest material.  Instead, the film takes a good forty-or-forty five minutes to get to the real meat of the tale: a war between two species which both believe that they are God's chosen.  Up to that point, the movie plays a little like what Charlton Heston feared a sequel might be, just a few more (amusing) adventures with the apes.

The absence of Heston, actually, is at the very root of the second problem.  Since the actor would only agree to book-end appearances in the sequel, the inventive writer, Paul Dehn, had to conceive a new human hero in James Franciscus's astronaut Brent.  Introducing Brent to the audience, and also introducing Brent to the world of the apes, however, effectively sets the movie back about thirty minutes. 

Instead of literally taking off at the Statue of Liberty, the audience returns to square one as another human astronaut meets Nova, visits Ape City, meets Zira and Cornelius, and is hunted by the gorillas.  After another escape, it's back to the Forbidden Zone -- where Planet of the Apes ended -- and finally the story proper seems to commence with the introduction of the mutants. 

Also, it's very clear that this should be Taylor's story, not Brent's, though Franciscus does an admirable job of bringing life and distinction to his not-very-well-delineated character.  The movie never quite gets over the perception that Brent is a fill-in character for Taylor.

All this criticism established, Beneath the Planet of the Apes demonstrates some remarkable sci-fi ingenuity in its final act, pitting Brent and Taylor (and the apes too...) against mutated humans who live underground, in the ruins of 20th Century New York City.  These mutants are gifted with psychic capabilities and worship a most unusual deity: the Alpha-Omega "Doomsday" bomb. 

This strange set-up provides the filmmakers plenty of opportunity to make commentary on the nature of religion, and on the nature of man too.   And indeed, this commentary very nearly (or perhaps fully, depending on your perspective), redeems the whole enterprise.

In particular, Beneath the Planet of the Apes reveals how two species (simian and human) use religion and "God's will" as cover for military conquest and aggression.  This is very much in keeping with the anti-war tenor of the 1968 Apes film, but Beneath the Planet of the Apes pushes the theme as far as it can absolutely go. 

Specifically, the film ends on a distinct but extremely gutsy "down note:" the destruction of the planet Earth itself.  Bloodier and more brutal even than its predecessor, Beneath of the Planet of the Apes thus goes out on a note of high inspiration, even if it is notably dark inspiration.

The only thing that counts in the end is power! Naked merciless force!

After Taylor (Heston) disappears in the Forbidden Zone under strange circumstances, Nova (Linda Harrison) makes a return to civilization to seek help. 

Along the way to Ape City, she meets up with John Brent (Franciscus), an astronaut who has followed Taylor's trajectory in hopes of rescuing him and also crash landed.. 

Nova and Brent visit Ape City, and find that charismatic but belligerent General Ursus (James Gregory) is plotting a "military adventure" into the Forbidden Zone to stake claim to new territory where the apes can grow crops. 

Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) is not happy about going along on this excursion, fearing "the unknown." He visits Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (David Watson) to share his concerns, and also to recruit them to fulfill his duties in his absence. 

When Nova and Brent are captured by apes and are to be used "for target practice," Zira helps free the duo from a prison wagon.  Brent and Nova escape into the Forbidden Zone and seek sanctuary from the Apes in a cavern.  There, they unexpectedly find the remnants of a 20th century subway system.   Brent and Nova explore the cavern, and discover the ruins of the New York Stock Exchange, the Public Library and Radio City Music Hall. 

The denizens of this subterranean metropolis are mutated humans, survivors of the nuclear war who have developed the powers of their mind. 

These mutants claim they are peaceful, and that their only weapon is "the power of illusion."  But they are not being completely truthful in this description.  They also possess a fully operational atomic bomb, the The Alpha Omega Bomb, which is capable of burning to a cinder the planet Earth.   The mutants worship the bomb (and "the holy fallout") and plan to use the device to defeat the aggressive Apes.

Brent and Taylor join forces to prevent the bomb's detonation, but Ursus's gorilla army arrives and decimates the mutant population.  After Nova is murdered by an ape soldier, Taylor loses his belief in the mission and -- fatally injured -- activates the Alpha Omega Bomb himself, putting an end to the planet's hatred and conflict once and for all.

Glory be to the Bomb, and to the Holy Fallout. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. World without end. Amen

In its best moments, Beneath the Planet of the Apes sets up a fine comparison between the conquering ape army and the under-dwelling mutants of bombed-out NYC. 

Both races express the notion that they are God's select; that God is talking explicitly to them. In Ape City, Ursus's speech notes that it is the "holy mission" of the apes to plant their flags and guns upon new territory.  What Zaius considers a "great crisis," Ursus views as an opportunity for fulfillment of destiny.  The apes -- chosen in the image of the Almighty -- shall expand their power, and Ursus shall have the opportunity for glory; to exercise his highly trained milita.  His campaign to the Forbidden Zone is even described as a "holy war" in one instance. 

It is the general's faith in God's blessings that allow him to so readily dismiss and disband a peace protest in the streets of Ape City.  There, a group of young chimpanzees (read: liberals) stand in the way of the mobilizing cavalry, and are brutally swept away by gorilla authority.  The protester's street signs -- urging peace -- are trampled underfoot by the marching militia.

Shot in hand-held fashion, the gorilla disruption of the chimpanzee peace demonstration is highly reminiscent of both Civil Rights and Vietnam protests of the time; making the point that a civilized nation's entrenched establishment -- buttressed by armed authority -- will always win out, even over courageous citizen activism.  Although the protest is anti-war (recalling Vietnam) in nature, it simultaneously falls along caste or race lines: Gorillas sweep away pacifist chimpanzees and their concerns.   This is just one instance (and one scene) where the Planet of the Apes saga proves so rich in allusion and metaphor; able to comment readily on more than one matter roiling Nixon's America.

Later in the film, Dr. Zaius witnesses the terrifying image of The Lawgiver bleeding, an illusion created by the mutants, and once more, he speaks in terms of religious fanaticism, and of some imaginary divine preference.  "We are still God's chosen," he insists "This is a vision...and it is a lie. 

His words, and the religious underpinning of the war make plain that this not just war, but a crusade.  what is at stake for the apes is their vision of their own superiority.

Meanwhile, in the wreckage of Manhattan, the mutants also view themselves as God's champions.  They are "Keepers of the Divine Bomb," and the bomb itself is a "holy weapon of peace."  Again, the mutants are deluding themselves about their true (violent) nature, and using religion as a shield; a shield by which they can do whatever it is that they please.   For instance, the mutants use their fearsome mental powers to make their enemies fight one another, to make Taylor and Brent fight.  But the mutants repeatedly exonerate themselves from responsibility for this action because they are not the ones actually picking up physical weapons, or throwing punches.  But they are every bit as violent as the apes.

Where Planet of the Apes pointed out the role of religious hypocrisy in the suppressing of truth and the suppressing of science, Beneath the Planet of the Apes utilizes the notion of dueling religious viewpoints, and suggests that such incompatible visions of the Divine (and the Divine's wishes...) very often serve as the root cause of  international conflict.  If God tells you to conquer...you conquer, right?  If you think God is on your side, it's easier to drop bombs on your enemy.

Given the incompatible viewpoints of the ape leadership and the mutant leadership, it is no surprise that the film ends as it does.  There can be no peace between those of such diametrically opposed viewpoints.  Taylor seems to understand this dead end, especially after Nova's meaningless death.  "We should let them all die...look what it comes to.  It's time it was finished."   

Nova's death, in some ways, concerns the idea of collateral damage.  She is a total innocent, a person of no ideology or particular belief, who gets caught in the crossfire when two ideological states  (ape and mutant) go to war.  She is the people of Vietnam, perhaps, caught between warring ideologies of capitalism and communism.

And finally, Taylor does finish things.  He activates the bomb and brings to an end both the apes and the mutants' delusions of God's favor.  It's a notably dark ending to the film.  It's actually more than dark, it's downright nihilistic.  The universe is better off with man and monkey dead, than at each other's throats.   In the film's last frame, Earth is left a cinder, and a narrator announces (in solemn voice over) that a "Green and insignificant planet is now dead." 

Notice the use of the word insignificant.  What the omnipotent narrator's choice of words reveal is that the apes and the humans ultimately lived and died by delusion and hypocrisy. They built themselves up as important and beloved in the eyes of a mythical Supreme Being, when in fact...they were no such thing.  All of their toils and battles went unnoticed in the universal scheme of things.  The apes and the men were fools...and they died as fools. 

When Beneath the Planet of the Apes adheres closely to this theme of dueling cultures and clashing religious viewpoints, it proves rather impressive, in my opinion.  And the mutant civilization, down to the presentation of the ruined city and the ghoulish make-up, is every bit as impressive as the special effects work done on the original Planet of the Apes

The moment here in which the mutants reveal their "innermost" selves to their God, the bomb, is more than bracing.  It's ghoulish.  The unmasking of the mutants may not equal the psychic jolt of the Statue of Liberty revelation in Planet of the Apes, but it certainly rivets the attention, and visually brings forth the horrific toll of nuclear war upon both the human flesh and the human visage.  It also assures that this sequel contributes some real visual "punch" to the franchise.

On the downside, Beneath the Planet of the Apes certainly raises some questions of series continuity.  In Planet of the Apes, Taylor's ship crashed in 3978.  In Beneath the Planet of the Apes, the year is established as 3955 instead, and that's the date utilized going forward into Escape and the other films. 

Also, Dr. Zaius regards Cornelius and Zira and notes the "two" chimpanzee psychologists.  Of course, only Zira is a psychologist. Cornelius is an archaeologist.  Again and again, the film seems to bizarrely misremember the specific details of Planet of the Apes.  Cornelius even notes that Brent doesn't want to end up like Taylor's two friends, stuffed and mounted in the "Zaius" museum.  Of course, only Dodge ended up stuffed in the museum; Landon was lobotomized.    I know the film was created before VCRs made films widely available for review and research, but it seems that someone should have screened the original Apes film on the studio lot before crafting the detail of the sequel.  Just a few minor tweaks, and all of these problems would have been easily resolved.

In terms of the film's action scenes, they are rather underwhelming.  The worst scene in the film is likely Brent and Nova's escape from an ape prison wagon.  The scene employs terrible rear-projection, and features cross-cutting between exterior long shots that don't seem to match the close-ups.  Worst of all, there's no soundtrack at all during this lengthy, would-be-tense sequence, so the whole scene just kind of sits there, about as flat as could be on an emotional or excitement level.   

Additionally, the scene in which Brent and Nova are chased across a grassy hill, and captured by the apes, is a very pale shadow of the intricate, brilliantly cut corn-field hunt in the first Planet of the Apes film.  The location is dull, there are relatively few ape soldiers (extras) in pursuit, and the scene is underwhelming both in terms of shots (mostly long and medium shots) and the unimpressive editing.  Moments that should generate anxiety and suspense fail totally to engender those emotions.

David Watson does his best to imitate Roddy McDowall's Cornelius here, but several of the scenes between Zira and Cornelius play as silly or inconsequential.  And during Ursus's big speech to the Ape Council, it's obvious that many of the citizen apes are simply wearing crude pull-over masks.  Again, there's the feeling that with a little more time and care, some of these moments could have been avoided, or at least downplayed to a certain extent.

On the matter of General Ursus, however, there can be no debate.  James Gregory gives a terrific, swaggering performance as the "glorious" leader of the apes, delivering one stem-winder of a political speech.   Although his words are (deliberately) racist and barbaric, the strutting performance is nothing less than rousing.

Gregory's Ursus -- right down to his uniform and hat -- is every bit as interesting a villain as Dr. Zaius or any other ape character featured in the film and TV series.  Evidence of this is that all succeeding generations of ape stories (the TV series, the cartoon, and the re-imagination...) have provided a substantial role for a militaristic gorilla general.  Ursus or Ursus knock-offs (Urko, for instance)  are part of the very gestalt of the franchise now, and it is Beneath the Planet of the Ape that introduces him. 

In some ways, Beneath the Planet of the Apes appears a truly schizophrenic film.  The first forty minutes are a mildly amusing retread of Planet of the Apes highlights, but the last hour or so is a daring, ably-presented descent into utter darkness and despair.  The introduction of the mutants and their divine bomb is a brilliant, inspired facet of the film (and reflected in the final stage of the five-strong film series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes.)  But more than that, Beneath the Planet of the Apes earns its artistic stripes by not cow towing to sequel conventions or audience demands for happy endings.

In the last several moments of the film, Brent is shot in the head (and we see it in close medium shot), Ursus is gunned down, and Taylor is mortally and bloodily wounded.  Then, just when you think the movie can't possibly descend further into despair, Taylor destroys the Earth.  It's gruesome and yet somehow also pure. 

Nobody gets out of the Planet of the Apes alive.

Well, almost nobody, as tomorrow's selection, Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) quickly reveals...