Spanked by the Monkey: Beneath the Planet of the Apes
From my brief research into this film, in a vain attempt to find something to write about, I’ve discovered that Beneath the Planet of the Apes is almost universally reviled. This strikes me as unfair. It’s nowhere near as bad as, say, Battle or Burton’s equally hateful remake, and were it to exist in a vacuum then it would be a seriously enjoyable piece of B-level schlock. Unfortunately for the first Planet of the Apes sequel, this isn’t the case and the original film casts a long shadow both over the production of the film itself and the reception to it that Beneath simply isn’t good enough to get out from under.
Serious spoilers lurk below, by the way.
Opening at the end of Planet of the Apes, Beneath has, in many senses, already made life incredibly hard for itself. Not only is that one of the most iconic scenes of all time, but it serves to remind us of just how fucking good Planet of the Apes was, and therefore makes an absolutely catastrophic mistake early on. Taylor (Charlton Heston) and Nova (Linda Harrison, a lot better this time out, and every bit as hot as she was before) ride off into the distance, Taylor makes a half-arsed attempt to teach her to talk (he’d have more luck teaching algebra to a horse), before he gives her his dog tags and they get separated. In the meantime, a new NASA ship has landed (let’s leave aside the massive continuity problem in the series of this ship landing) introducing us to our new Human protagonist Brent (James Franciscus). Brent is looking for Taylor, and no sooner than you can say “monkey” than he’s bumped into Nova. She takes him to Ape City where he meets Cornelius (Not McDowall this time, surprisingly, instead the part is taken by David Watson) and Zira (Kim Hunter again). Ape City is not a happy place, General Ursus (James Gregory) is clamouring for war on the Forbidden Zone, the wanker, while Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans again) is doing Dr. Zauis type things. Brent is captured along with Nova, then they’re freed by Zira to escape to find Taylor. This leads the humans into the Forbidden Zone, where the descendants of humanity actually live: psychically juiced up Morlock type things that worship a giant planet-killing nuke. Taylor and Brent are reunited and have a bit of a comedy fight, then the apes attack, everyone dies and in a supreme act of absolute dickishness, Taylor presses the button eliminating (in a needless act of mass genocide) all life on the planet.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes is plagued with problems. Firstly, there’s Heston himself. Not only was the budget cut severely, but he demanded a much larger chunk of it. Furthermore, he said he’d only reprise his role if his part was limited to 5 days on set and he got to destroy the world to prevent any further sequels (Ha, you wish, Charlton). This forced writers Paul Dehn and Mort Abrahams to invent the Brent plot so we’ve got a human focus for the films. Actually, weirdly, Franciscus is really good here, and he certainly elevates Harrison not to mention looking more natural with her than the rather caveman-esque Heston. Nevertheless, the problem with Brent is that his very existence forces us to relive the events of the first film, but slightly tweaked. So, Brent meets Nova, marvels at ape city, gets stuffed in a cage, meets our friendly chimps and manages to discern that we blew up the planet. None of this is necessary, because it’s just truncated from the first film, and it’s actually a colossal misstep. The correct route here would have been to have Heston vanish “Beneath” the Planet of the Apes, then Nova returns to ape town and Cornelius and Zira lead the search for “Bright Eyes”.
Which brings me on to the next problem: the psychic morlock things. OK, while this is a stupendously schlocky idea, and really quite entertaining with all the “show god our real face” nonsense, it’s just too bugnuts insane for the first sequel to the incredibly high-concept original. This sort of idea should appear in about film 4 or 5 in the series. Furthermore, there’s an agonising scene where the morlock fuckers communicate with Brent telepathically forcing poor old Franciscus to repeat their side of the dialogue as well as his. It’s a bit of a relief when one of them eventually says that they’ll communicate with speech because he’s so fucking primitive.
The real problem here, though, is that this is a Planet of the Apes movie that effectively sidelines the apes. All the shit with Ape City and invading the Forbidden Zone feels hugely extraneous, and that’s because it is. The meat of the story here is the search for Taylor, but I don’t want to watch a film where Franciscus and a vastly improved Harrison wander around the ruins of New York looking for one of the most monumentally dickheaded characters ever put as a lead in Sci-Fi. The really short-changed characters are Cornelius, Zira and (sadly) Dr. Zauis. These were great characters in the original, and Hunter is probably the best actor on show here, so it’s almost a bit insulting that these three (who in a sane sequel, which this is not, would form the main story) are so badly sidelined.
Against that, though, this isn’t actually a bad film, and outside of Conquest, it’s probably my favourite of the sequels, and my favourite of the original series that isn’t called Planet of the Apes. This is for two reasons: firstly it is completely insane, as if a hell of a lot of LSD was being ingested when it was written, and secondly, because the ending is absolutely fantastic. It is no exaggeration to say that Beneath the Planet of the Apes has one of the most spitefully nihilistic climaxes ever filmed.
The thing is, when the battle takes place and Nova and Brent are gunned down, this is the natural end of the film. However, that didn’t meet Heston’s terms: he had to destroy the world. So, the film ends with him launching the rocket. Not only is this in direct contradiction to what they’re trying to achieve (defusing it), but there isn’t a single reasonable explanation that makes it either necessary or heroic for Taylor pressing the button. I actually really admire the balls of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, because the film doesn’t even try to justify this. What Taylor does is the ultimate act of spite; he’s not saving the day or anything like that. Furthermore, it isn’t just spiteful, but it feels almost playground level of pettiness.
It plays out like this: Brent goes down, hard, Nova says her only line in two films, then dies, and Taylor himself is shot. He’s lying on the floor and asks Dr. Zauis for help, who sniffily dismisses it because Taylor is a human. Taylor’s response? hits the button. He’s basically just gone “Fuck you, then” and arbitrarily decided to eliminate all life on the planet. The hilariously po-faced epilogue is almost pointless, because we’ve witnessed the ultimate act of destructive spite that mankind could inflict:
“In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe, lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.”
The reason this is so successful is that it’s both heavily ironic and perfectly in character for Taylor. The dude is a monumental arsehole, and for all his posturing and persecution at the hands of the monkeys, when push comes to shove he just says “fuck you” and singlehandedly proves Dr. Zauis right about humanity. By pressing the button Taylor has become the sort of anti-messiah for the apes: he’s the angel of death and has come to eliminate all life on the planet and his arrival has heralded their destruction. This is an awesomely nihilistic way to end a film, and I really admire the big shiny balls that the studio had allowing this to go through- you’d think that they would have found a way to make the destruction of Earth noble, no matter how many narrative hoops they would have had to jump through.
Overall, in the context of Planet of the Apes sequels, it’s really quite good. However, that’s because the rest of the sequels are mostly, and let’s be honest here, garbage. There’s one feature that remains constant in all the Apes movies, and that’s a stupendously miserable ending that elevates the material we’ve seen previously (exception being Battle, because that’s shit), however, having said that, I don’t think any of them, and let’s face it, none of them are cheery, come close to the absolute misanthropy of the finale to Beneath. I’m giving it 2 monkeys out of 4, mostly all earned by that finale, because it does earn the film stripes that it otherwise wouldn’t get.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes is completely insane on any reasonable analysis, and as a series closer, that would be a belter. However, the cash cow was only just starting to be milked so next time out we’re fleeing from the Planet of the Apes in the mostly bizarre 3rd film: Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Escape is the film that closes the circle, and then I’ve got the fucking awful remake to contend with.