“Glory be to the Bomb and the Holy Fall-Out!”
I’m attempting to watch the first five Planet of the Apes film before Dawn of the Planet of the Apes comes out this summer. I previously watched and loved the very first film, and now am continuing the project with 1970′s Beneath the Planet of the Apes. It’s a weird one.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes picks up right where the first film ends, more or less. Actually the first thing we see is a reedited version of the first film’s last two scenes – Dr. Zaius sending Taylor off to his destiny and Taylor discovering what came of the earth. We then see the two-man search party sent after Taylor. They’ve come from earth in much the same way as Taylor, but only one of them has made it. They really should’ve thought through the whole reentry portion of this flight better. The surviving member is Brent, played by Charlton Heston Light. Or, er James Franciscus. Instead of traversing the desert he sits by the wreck of the spaceship until Nova rides by wearing Taylor’s dog tags. We then get a series of flashbacks showing us what happened to Taylor.
This is where things start to get weird.
We see Taylor and Nova riding through the Forbidden Zone. Suddenly, a wall of flames blocks their paths. Taylor shouts some things and Charlton Hestons for a while. Then, naturally, he disappears through a wall of rock he thought to be a mountain. Charlton Heston didn’t want to come back for a sequel to Planet of the Apes, so we won’t be seeing him again for a while.
Brent rides with Nova, who’s obeying Taylor’s instructions and going to find Cornelius and Zira. The scene where Brent firsts sees the evolved apes is actually really clever. The movie doesn’t try to play it as a surprise; it assumes the audience remembers the first movie. Instead it shows us Brent’s surprise and throws us straight in to a political debate with some of characters from the first film. The big new addition to this scene is a gorilla general who is pushing for war against some sort of mysterious threat hiding out in the forbidden zone. Much to Cornelius and Zira’s dismay, the apes end up siding with the general and plan to go a-marching to war.
After a brief but fairly unimportant visit with Cornelius and Zira, Nova and Brent go riding off. Of course they end up being chased by apes for roughly forever. In fairness, I’m being a little hard on these scenes. The biggest problem is the complete lack of sound design – nothing like an almost completely silent fight to feel out of place and wooden in a film like this. There are actually some clever beats, but over all it’s a little long and not nearly tense enough. The point is Brent and Nova end up underground.
And then things start to get REALLY weird.
They actually end up in the ruined remnants of a subway, allowing Brent to have his “goddamn them all to hell” moment. He then sees signs of civilization (there’s a fairly long thing with a horrible buzzing sound involved, but let’s not go there). They end up next to a fountain, at which point Brent goes nuts and starts trying to drown Nova. It’s actually super intense and fairly frightening. In fact this whole stretch of the movie is a little more effective than the rest, but more on that later.
Turns out a bunch of humans are still alive, and they’ve remained relatively unchanged in this time. Except for their psychic powers of course. They also worship an unexploded atomic bomb. They separate Brent (who they were controlling earlier when he tried to murder Nova) from Nova and interrogate him. Meanwhile the apes march towards the forbidden zone. The apes are faced with a psychic illusion designed to deter them – a wall of flaming, crucified apes in front of a giant statue of their god. The statue of their god is, naturally, bleeding. Isn’t this franchise meant to appeal to a younger audience? Anyway they get past the illusion. The psychics, who, it turns out, are just wearing people masks and are actually deformed mutants, put Brent in a cage with Taylor and force them to fight to the death. It’s probably the best fight scene in the film, despite looking like Charlton Heston is fighting a diminutive clone.
But then the apes storm the underground hideaway! There’s fighting. Nova dies, Brent gets shot, and it’s surprisingly graphic. It ends when Taylor, shot and bleeding, detonates the atomic bomb and DESTROYS THE ENTIRE WORLD.
I told you this movie is weird.
It’s actually pretty well made, though not nearly as good as the first. The cinematography is weaker, and the action scenes do this weird thing where they try to imitate the fast editing from the first film without the dynamic camera work, and it’s really jarring. The fight between Brent and Taylor is actually pretty great; it’s intense and gritty. There are even proper sound effects. In fact most of the movie’s action beats in the last act work well, in part because there are some seriously heavy stakes. The film is smart enough to not retread the first, and manages to throw in its one healthy dose of political commentary (eg. the protesting chimpanzees sitting in the path of the gorilla army) though it seems to forgo commentary for pulpy action way more regularly than the first.
The tone of this film is pretty different. The first film took itself very seriously, which was really great. This one still plays its concept completely straight, but it’s far less respectable in tone. It’s a little more action heavy, a little pulpier, a little slower in spots despite being shorter over all. But it makes up for it by being completely fucking weird. This movie’s plot seriously sounds like a hilarious metal concept album, and it completely commits to it. Which I love. It’s such a seriously bizarre little movie and, while parts of it are definitely clunky, it’s hard not to adore the sheer audacity of the ideas at play here.
It honestly just has me more excited for the other sequels. If the rest are as bizarre as this, I will be thoroughly delighted.
I’ll leave you with this song: