Serious About Series: “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”

In the lead up to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I hope to take a look at the original five movies to see if there’s any merit to revisiting them in this first installment of Serious About Series.

The Apes films are known mostly for the first movie and its memorable lines and scenes, but what about the other four? Are they cheap, rapid cash ins of a surprise hit? Are they equally interesting sci-fi movies of their own?

Yesterday we took a look at Planet of the Apes, which became known for its makeup and its unique premise. The first film made a whole bunch of money and critical acclaim, so of course they’re going to dip back into the well! Two years later, a sequel was born.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Taylor and the still-mute, still-pointless Nova are riding on horseback shortly after discovering the infamous ruins of the Statue of Liberty in the last film. Taylor (a visibly older, less interested Heston) is trying in vain to teach her to speak and to form some sort of connection. Suddenly the pair come across an unexplained wall of fire and suddenly-appearing cliffs. When Taylor goes to investigate, he’s swallowed up by an illusory wall, leaving Nova alone.

Elsewhere in the desert, a second spaceship from 1970s Earth crashlands. The one survivor, Brent, has come to try to discover what happened to Taylor and his crew, declared missing several years before. His crew dies in even more rapid fashion than Taylor’s did before he runs into Nova, wearing Taylor’s dog tags. Nova leads him back to the Ape City, where the gorilla General Ursus is about to lead an army into the Forbidden Zone to try to find a rumored source of intelligent humans and destroy it.

Brent meets up with Cornelius and Zira, who help him escape the Ape City to the ruins of the New York City Subway, which leads to a series of underground tunnels where he and Nova come across a group of xenophobic hyper-intelligent humans, psychic survivors of the holocaust that wiped out civilization and most of humanity. They also happen to be insane, worshiping a now-ancient nuclear weapon capable of destroying all life on Earth.

Our new hero Not-Quite-Heston and the always ridiculous Nova.

The humans blame Brent for leading the Ape army towards their location. He is thrown into a cage with Taylor, who has spent at this point 80% of the film presumed dead, and forced to fight to the death by telepathic bloodlust or something. Nova speaks her first word (“Taylor!”) at an opportune moment to distract a guard and allow the two heroes to break free, right before she gets shot. Both heroes mourn for a character who did little more than take up space. Apes stampede into the human tunnels. The cultists set up their Divine Bomb to cleanse the world, revealing themselves to be horrible radiation zombie mutants wearing normal person masks, despite the fact nobody would normally even be around to be repulsed by them.

This being the 70s, what follows is a bloodbath where most of our heroes end up brutally massacred. Taylor, riddled with bullets, makes his last action the dramatic activation of the bomb. We get some narration over black that Earth blinks out of existence. The End.

If this sounds incredibly dumb, that’s because it is. Beneath the Planet of the Apes is a terrible movie, full of awful digressions from its original premise and hilariously out of place attempts at social commentary. The religious/science dogma of the first film gives way to insane zombie-clerics parading around a bomb idol. When the gorillas go to war, the chimpanzees protest with anti-war signs and rallies straight out of the era. It plays like a parody of itself. I can only imagine that nobody knew what to do with the material and decided to throw it into a blender.

Cultists. Phallic worship. There's a joke in there. I dunno.

Brent and Taylor might as well be the same character, with Brent given time to become Nova’s new fake-boyfriend-by-circumstance, which makes seeing him encounter Taylor so baffling. Heston seemed like a man who showed up for a payday and two days of filming, so having him appear 80% of the way through the movie and suddenly reassert himself as the hero just negates all this time we’ve spent with the ‘new guy.’

Never mind that for a movie about the titular planet of apes, there’s a shocking lack of good ape interaction. We get a lot of gorilla shock troops, who are boring thugs in monkey masks. There is one good scene, where the psychic cultists use their powers of projection to create illusions to scare off the gorilla army, that is probably the best thing in the movie. But it’s like finding an uneaten candy in a dumpster. It’s still just so much trash. The smartest thing they did was blow this whole thing up so nobody could make another similar atrocity of post-apocalyptic farce.

No caption I could put here makes this okay.

Which brings us to the obvious question, when there is no more planet of the apes, how do you make another Planet of the Apes movie, much less three of them? Well, come back tomorrow, when I’ll tell you a tale. A tale about good decisions, interesting movie making, and a little film called Escape from the Planet of the Apes.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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