Monday, April 02, 2018

Planet of the Apes 50th Anniversary Blogging: 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 militia.  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, 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 mis-remember 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 Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) quickly reveals...

1 comment:

  1. One must wonder why a bomb that can destroy the entire world is housed in a missile.


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