Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) / Sci Fi-Adventure
MPAA Rated: G (would be PG-13 for violence and some mild language today)
Running Time: 95 min.
Cast: James Franciscus, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, Linda Harrison, James Gregory, David Watson, Charlton Heston, Paul Richards, Don Pedro Colley, Victor Buono, Jeff Corey
Director: Ted Post
Screenplay: Paul Dehn
Review published July 15, 2014
Beneath the Planet of the Apes is the second in the original five-movie series that kicked off with the groundbreaking Planet of the Apes two years prior. This sequel starts off with a reshowing of the ending of Planet of the Apes, followed by a few new scenes featuring the spirited Taylor (Heston, The Omega Man) and mute Nova (Harrison, Cocoon) and their further travels into the Forbidden Zone, a place where Taylor will eventually mysteriously disappear. Not long after, another crew of astronauts from the same era as Taylor end up landing on Earth 2,000 years in the future, and again, there is only one eventual protagonist, an American named Brent (Franciscus, Mr. Novak). He soon meets Nova and realizes that Taylor has been around, setting about finding his colleague with her help. Nova takes Brent back to Ape City where he meets the benevolent scientist chimpanzees Zira (Hunter, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) and Cornelius (Watson, The Legend of Robin Hood), and where he learns of a mounting military uprising about to take place in the Forbidden Zone where the Apes have said others are residing.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes continues the advances of make-up, costumes, and set design that are so impressive in its predecessor. From a visual standpoint, with the exception of some dated effects, and some obvious masks for extras instead of make-up, it works quite well, especially given that the budget for the film had been chopped in half by the struggling studio shortly before production had begun. However, in terms of its plot design, scope, intrigue, and overall quality of its direction, Beneath is a fairly big step down, only becoming truly interesting in its final half hour. The post-nuclear commentary is certainly still there, especially in its indictment of humankind's propensity to self-destruct due to our violent nature for settling disputes.
Ted Post's (Magnum Force, Hang 'em High) style is a bit too bright and clean to jibe well with the grittier entry by Franklin J. Schaffner, often coming across like an extended episode of a cheesy science fiction TV show spin-off than as a big blockbuster follow-up. Slapped together to capitalize on the phenomenon, the producers couldn't secure the services of their original director, who had committed to the future Best Picture-winning Patton, and Charlton Heston wanted to take a pass on a follow-up, feeling that continuing the story was not only unnecessary, but would diminish the impact of the first effort. Heston would eventually be convinced to come back for one more go around, so long as he only appeared briefly, which he does, but still ends up playing a significant role.
However, the lack of interest in starring means that the situation would have to be contrived in which another astronaut would have to appear to plug into the script, and while James Franciscus does resemble Heston enough to feel somewhat familiar (even Zira is confused upon first sight of the blonde, bearded human), he lacks the charisma to make his character feel like anything more than a placeholder. Plus, his character is problematic from a plausibility standpoint, given how much of a fluke it had been for Taylor's flight to end up in the time and planet they did, while expecting us to think that a contemporary on a search mission for Taylor could not only end up in the same time and planet, but the exact locale on that planet as well. Plus, how would the people on Earth know to send a rescue party when, given the accelerated way that time moves in space, Taylor's group was not expected back until after everyone on Earth at the time would have been dead?
That's not the only strange aspect of the film, as there's little evidence to suggest that the Apes need to mount an all-out offensive attack into the Forbidden Zone, and once there, what they find makes no sense in terms of entities that have been hidden so securely for millennia that are so easily found with seemingly minimal effort. This is one of those movies where you're forced, as a spectator, to just go with things for the good parts, and feel a bit guilty afterward that not enough expository information had been thought out to make this effort much more than a guilty pleasure adventure.
I won't go so far as to call Beneath the Planet of the Apes a bad film, as I do think the fact that it comes to life in the third act, after a fits-and-starts first hour does make it somewhat worthwhile for those who are thirsting for more human vs. ape action. But it's definitely a disappointment given how intelligent, imaginative, and brilliantly conceived the 1968 entry had been. And the abrupt ending, while neither shocking nor satisfying, is definitely not boring. Let's face it, if this were the first entry in the series, there would likely never be another. But, given the rabid phenomenon of the original Planet of the Apes, it's a nice bonus for fans to explore more of that fantastical world of Apes and Men.
-- Followed by Escape from the Planet of the Apes.
©2014 Vince Leo