Summer School: 'Beneath the Planet of the Apes' (1970)
Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.
Like many sequels to surprise hits, Beneath the Planet of the Apes is a rushed production that fails to capture what made the original movie creatively successful. But it's also a weird mix of two different approaches to making this kind of sequel: The first half is essentially a rehash of Planet of the Apes, with James Franciscus standing in for Charlton Heston (who returned only under duress for a brief appearance) and going through more or less the same motions that Heston's Taylor did in the first movie. (The first five minutes literally just reuses footage from the end of Planet.) Then the second half goes off in a completely crazy direction, practically ignoring the original premise and delivering a stark, nihilistic ending that would never fly in a modern franchise blockbuster (and is still pretty shocking for its time period). Neither of these sections really works, though, and the odd second half is too silly to be as haunting as the bleak ending would indicate.
First, there's 45 minutes of Franciscus as astronaut Brent, going through many of the same motions as Taylor after crash-landing on the apes' planet. He watches his one crewmate die; he encounters Nova (Linda Harrison), the primitive human Taylor bonded with; he discovers the ape city and is captured; he winds up in the care of Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (David Watson, replacing Roddy McDowall), who try to protect him after discovering he can talk; and he eventually escapes custody along with Nova. Franciscus, who even looks like Heston, is a less charismatic leading man, although he does what he can with the recycled material. Harrison gets an expanded role as Nova, but Zira and Cornelius just argue over their familiar talking points again.
Once Brent escapes the city of the apes, though, the movie takes a crazy turn, as he discovers the extensive ruins of New York City (implied by the Statue of Liberty appearance at the end of the previous movie). There he encounters a society of human mutants, who've developed telepathic powers and worship an ancient (but still functioning) mega-powerful atomic bomb. Given that so much of the effectiveness of the first movie's story came from the contrast between the primitive humans and the evolved apes, it sort of undermines that impact to then introduce an entire civilization of intelligent, even superpowered humans who've been living underground this whole time. The simplicity and directness of the story in the first movie is one of the things that make it so engaging, and Beneath needlessly complicates and muddies that.
At the same time, the second half is so over-the-top and ridiculous that it's kind of fun to watch, especially as the actors in hideous costumes stare very intently at Franciscus while communicating their telepathic messages. While the ape makeup in the first movie created a surprisingly convincing look, budget cuts mean that many of the ape extras are wearing cheap masks, and the human cultists wear costumes that look like Star Trek rejects. The bland Franciscus is a poor man's Heston (which is, of course, a deliberate choice), and Heston himself, in his minimal appearances at the beginning and end of the movie, gives a performance that cries "contractual obligation." Heston was also supposedly the one who came up with the ending as a way to kill any potential sequels, as Taylor sets off a "doomsday bomb" that will eradicate the entire planet, and closing narration assures the audience that "a green and insignificant planet is now dead," just in case it wasn't clear. Of course, that didn't prevent producers from eventually creating three more sequels, but it's still a bold middle finger to the studio at the end of a major Hollywood sequel, the unexpected kicker to a confused, compromised cash-in.