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.
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.
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.
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.
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..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nobody gets out of the Planet of the Apes alive.