Directed by Ted Post
Written by Paul Dehn
Coming off how weird the original was, could you really expect anything less than the sequel perhaps being even weirder!? Sequels are always weirder, and sticking with the same kind of approach in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, the filmmakers kind of up the ante. It’s kind of amazing looking back on things that the Planet of the Apes film managed to spawn a five film original franchise (and subsequently the additional films in the 21st century. For a film so weird and different, it doesn’t seem like the prime candidate to have additional entries into the canon. However, after watching just the second film, I can see what an abundant canvas the concept allows for furthering the story and exploring new and different ideas. With this specific entry, I think the creators fall somewhere in between a rehash of the original and a creative expansion of the world building accomplished in the original.
After Taylor (Charlton Heston) and his crew go missing, Earth send a second rescue mission to track him down, but they suffer the same fate, with Brent (James Franciscus) the only survivor after crash landing on the Planet of the Apes. Brent is quickly discovered by Nova (Linda Harrison), who is alone after Taylor mysteriously disappeared. Nova leads Brent to the Ape community, where he is likewise flabbergasted by the state of affairs. After seeking help from ape ally Zira (Kim Hunter), Nova and Brent flee into the Forbidden Zone from war mongering guerilla leader Ursus (James Gregory), discovering a labyrinth of New York City ruins hidden beneath the planet’s surface. But as they escape the apes, they encounter another group that might be just as threatening, as they continue to search for Taylor.
To be honest, having seen this film once before, I had forgotten that Charlton Heston was still in this installment. Given what little I know of the history of the franchise, and the stature of an actor like Heston, I guess I had assumed they hit the reset button, and cast Franciscus as Brent as a stand-in, as he is a bright-eyed handsome man as well (though remarkably shorter in scenes with Heston). Franciscus doesn’t have near the charisma and delivery of Heston, which brings the film down some, as does the presence of the mute Nova. Nova is a pretty easy choice to bring back and elevate her role, I can see the producers capitalizing on her sexuality as an easy attention grabber. Kim Hunter and Maurice Evans also return to the fold and provide the continuity necessary to make a sequel like this work. Kim Hunter is really doing good work between the original and this sequel, selling Zira extremely well and helping set the tone for the film.
As for the topics that the film chooses to tackle, it doesn’t shy away from its message, which is perhaps its greatest strength. Where Planet of the Apes was largely a commentary on the Civil Right movement, there are quite overt references here to not only the Vietnam War protests, with Chimpanzees opening picketing for peace from the militaristic guerillas, but also a main plot around a fanatic, nuclear warhead worshipping sect which is a clear reference to the ongoing Cold War between the US and Russia at the time. Planet of the Apes was fairly obvious in its references, though some subtly was exercised by the filmmakers, but here, the references are right in your face and unavoidable. There’s certainly a chance that these overly political references could have sunk the film and ended the franchise in its tracks, but that is obviously not the case. I would love to dig more into the production/reception history of these original films.
As for how I received it, well, it certainly lost points for being so hokey and obvious, it’s not nearly as successful as the original. I think a tinge of subtlety could have helped the film. And while I could say that I could have used a little more explanation into who these fanatics were, given they didn’t come up in the original and presumably have been living literally right under the apes noses for centuries, trying to find logical sense in a movie about time travelling humans who encounter a future world run by cultured, talking apes seems a futile effort. But that’s just it, embrace the weird, embrace the ridiculous, embrace what this film is trying to do and it’s an easy one to enjoy, warts and all. There are quite obvious cues taken from the original, Brent is a stand in for Taylor, etc, but I must confess to have been quite entertained by the sprawling underworld sets, the political commentary, and even the wonderfully earnest performance once again from Heston. If I had not gotten the “You bloody bastard!” line delivery from him, perhaps I wouldn’t have liked this as much.