TIME PERIOD: CIRCA 3978
Beneath the Planet of the Apes is one of the more divisive films in the series. Some people hate it with the fire of a thousand suns, others proclaim it's the best film in the series, and very few people just say 'it's okay.' But what it is about the film that inspires these kind of opinions in people?
Beneath opens with a reprise of the climax of Planet of the Apes. We see Taylor say goodbye to Cornelius and Zira, and find his destiny in the guise of the Statue of Liberty. He then moves on with Nova to search the rest of the desolate Forbidden Zone. Then we see a ship, one exactly like Taylor's, only crashed on the ground. An astronaut climbs out, one that looks an awful lot like Taylor. This is Brent, who has come to the planet looking for Taylor.
Brent quickly finds Nova, alone on horseback, with no sign of Taylor at all. Obviously she's mute so can't tell him about her, but Brent finds Taylor's dogtags around her neck and demands to know where he is. We then flashback to Taylor giving her the tags, and the pair coming across a wall of fire in the Forbidden Zone. Suddenly, everything goes dark, lightning starts kicking in and the earth splits. Bits of rock start appearing random, and then Taylor falls into the rock and disappears.
Yep, bye bye Chuck. Brent then goes off with Nova through the desert, then to the fields and the ape city where they witness a council meeting, and where we're introduced to the awesome General Ursus, a mental gorilla who believes 'the only good human is a dead human', and who has a whole squad of gorillas who are as crazed as he is. He also has a really funky leather hat-cowl thing.
We're also quickly reintroduced to Zira and Cornelius, as well as Dr. Zaius, who look on as Ursus tells us they know something else exists in the Forbidden Zone, and that they should invade it to make sure they still have all the power. Hearing this nutty speech, Brent and Nova cheese it, barely avoiding a gorilla soldier who injures Brent.
Meanwhile, General Ursus and Dr. Zaius have a sauna session. Seriously. They have a chat about the Forbidden Zone and its dangers, and it's clearly obvious that Ursus is a nutter, using famine as an excuse to invade. You can tell this isn't going to go well at all. After this, Brent and Nova hook up with Cornelius and Zira (not hook up in that sense) and show Brent where to go to find Taylor, although both are quickly captured by gorillas and put in cages.
It's not hard to see from the opening half an hour why many people are down on the movie. For the most, it's pretty dull at the beginning. It's generally a repeat of the first movie just with James Franciscus' Brent, who makes a pretty poor substitute for Heston. It doesn't help as well that Roddy McDowell wasn't around for this one, and the actor who plays him just seems to do a mild impression of Cornelius, but doesn't have any chemistry with Zira at all.
We do, however, get to see a ton of gorillas training and generally causing all sorts of carnage. Some of it's pretty brutal really, as they go after any human in sight. Brent and Nova escape pretty quickly, and enter a cave while running from Ursus' troops. However, the cave is decked out with some fancy lemon tiling, so it's pretty clear that we're not in Kansas anymore. We see bits of familiar things burned into the rock, like a telephone, and then begin to see that this is a subway line from New York City.
Brent is obviously confused, but it's not quite the Heston reaction, as much as he's trying to be him. Even the dialogue is similar. Back at ape city, Ursus is readying to go on his "holy war" and gets a decent sendoff from the orangutans. There's some total on-the-nose protests from youthful chimps who are protesting for peace (especially considering this was made in 1970), although they're quickly moved on by Ursus, whose horses trample over the signs as they begin their journey.
On further investigation, Brent and Nova find more of the city, such as the stock exchange and the Radio City Music Hall, and subsequently a massive cathedral. Then he goes nuts and tries to kill Nova after hearing an order in his head. He pops into the cathedral and finds some weird psychic blokes in hoods that take him away to meet another bunch of weird psychic blokes in hoods - good old mutants (evolved from the ones in Battle for the Planet of the Apes). Said mutants send Brent a bit nuts, interrogate him about what the apes are doing, then reveal they worship an atomic bomb as their God. Yep. They can also do some good parlor tricks, like creating fire out of thin air.
Brent reveals that the apes are marching to the Forbidden Zone and the dead city, so the mutants start off their illusions, first by creating a wall of fire amongst a group of captured apes. This does bring up an interesting argument, where Zaius asks Ursus to order his men to shoot the apes so they don't burn to death in pain, but Ursus will not do it because of the sacred law 'ape shall not kill ape'. Then a giant bleeding statue of the Lawgiver appears, prompting Zaius to ride into the fire, realising it's all, well, bollocks. Everything disappears and the apes ride on.
Meanwhile, the mutants have a ceremoney where they sing to the bomb. Seriously, this movie brings up some pretty fine WTF moments, such as the line 'The heavens declare the glory of the bomb, and the firmament showeth His handiwork.' !!!!! The crazy mutants then raise the missile up, and sing to it a bit more, before ripping off their skin V-style to reveal their hideous mutant visages underneath. This is admittedly pretty cool, and John Chambers' mutant makeup does the job, although the amount of mutants here perhaps explains why some of the ape makeup in other seasons is a tad ropey.
Brent is locked up and finds Taylor in the cell, and after they have a quick catchup, the mutants make them fight. To be fair, it's a decent fight and Taylor really kicks the shit out of Brent until the mutants introduce a weapon. Suddenly, we see Nova who says 'Taylor!' which distracts the mutant who Taylor and Brent kill. Brent tells Taylor about the bomb, who reveals it's a doomsday bomb which can basically kill everything. This part is especially interesting because as soon as Heston starts talking he belows Franciscus off the screen.
Finally, the apes get into the cave and the subway system and open season on all mutants as Taylor, Brent and Nova escape. Unfortunately, Nova is killed by a gorilla, which causes Taylor to go back into his mega-pessimist mode, where he wants everything to die. The apes break into the cathedral, and the main mutant starts to raise the bomb again, to the amazement of Dr. Zaius and Ursus, who kills the mutant.
Ursus the idiot orders his men to rope up the missile and bring it down, while Brent and Taylor try and stop them. The gorillas shoot Taylor and Brent kills Ursus, before being killed himself. A dying Taylor asks Zaius for help, but the orangutan just reminds him man is an evil creature of destruction. So, with a 'Bloody bastard!' Taylor falls down to die, and with his final act activates the bomb. Everything goes to white, and we get a final narration:
'In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe lies a medium-size star. And one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.'
Wow. Is it possible for a film to be terrible for the majority of its running time, only to be redeemed right at the end? Beneath the Planet of the Apes runs for one hour and thirty-four minutes, and probably an hour and twenty of those are dull at the least. Yet as soon as Heston shows up, it kicks into gear and delivers one of the darkest films I've ever seen, with an ending that seems even darker in chronological order.
I mean, truth be told, this is not a good movie. As I said earlier, the first act is essentially the same as the first movie, only with Franciscus replacing Heston as an almost carbon-copy, with the same beard, same hair, and is even given similar lines. It's dull when it's just Franciscus, but when Heston arrives near the end, it's almost embarassing to see them both on the screen together. It's like that scene in Wayne's World 2 where Mike Myers asks for a better actor to come in for a scene, only for Heston to step in and be Heston. It may be a little unfair, but it's the truth.
But then, this is not a film for good acting, which is a shame given that the rest of the series features a number of great performances. The main problem is the script and its treatment of the characters, as we barely spend any time with interesting people/apes like Zira and even Dr. Zaius. Ursus is okay, but he's pretty one-dimensional and doesn't have any of the charisma of someone like Aldo. But that hat is awesome, and he is pretty brutal. The aforementioned forced recasting of Cornelius also doesn't help, but even the mutants are just boring guys reading their scripts like the Microsoft speech helper.
The film looks pretty good, I'll give it that. The production design is excellent and the effects are decent as well, even if (as mentioned before) some of the ape makeups are a bit rushed. The veiny mutants look cool, but the makeup of Ursus is my favourite, a proper expressive gorilla makeup as compared to Urko who had to act through his eyes because he couldn't make the mask move. Leonard Rosenman's music is okay, but it never really stands out, which is the problem with this film. There's just no impact. The material is certainly dark in places, but it's brought down by things like the mutants, who just seem mega-silly (and their costumes don't help). Beneath the Planet of the Apes gets two apes out of four.
So yeah, the ending is awesome, but I'm not sure if that can really make up for the rest of the movie. But how does the film - and the series in general - look after five films? Remember, this is in chronological order, although technically there are potentially two timelines.
So, apes arrive on Earth after escaping from their world that exploded, give birth to a child, the apes die, the child grows up and leads a revolt, then tries to live harmoniously with man. Flash forward thousands of years later and astronauts crash on a mysterious planet where apes are the dominant species. The only surviving astronaut discovers the planet itself is Earth after a nuclear war. Then another astronaut crashes, discovers the same things, then meets up with the other astronaut who, with his last act before death, sets off a super-atomic bomb that blows up the entire planet. Then apes who escaped before the planet exploded arrive on Earth...
It works out pretty well, really. People generally put the films into two timelines based on the information given in the films - timeline one goes like this:
PLANET OF THE APES - BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES
In this timeline, the first ape to speak was called Aldo, according to the sacred texts that Cornelius relayed to Taylor. It's also worth mentioningthat Planet takes place in 3978, but Brent mentions the clock in his ship stopped at 3955. It's possible one of these is a malfunction, I'm not exactly sure wish so it's not something I'll concentrate on. But the second timeline is considered to be this:
ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES - CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES - BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
Here, the first ape to speak was Cornelius and Zira in 1973, with the ape that led the revolt being their child, Milo aka Caesar. However, in the first film Cornelius was already very suspicious of the validity of the secret scrolls, and both he and Zira were very much believers in evolution, and any faith they had was probably shaken even more by the revelation not only that there was a previous culture that was technologically advanced, but more that Dr. Zaius had lied to them and kept this a secret. And if he had lied about this, what else?
This potentially is evidence that the secret scrolls were fictional, and that the real story of their prehistory was hidden from them. Certainly it would make sense in regards to the bookending sections of Battle, where there is the Lawgiver but also the statue of Caesar. Clearly the tale of the apes coming to Earth and beginning the race with that act would not necessarily be one the Lawgiver or whoever created the sacred scrolls would want to relay, especially as it featured man doing everything the apes had before. So that would have to be changed.
Also, the story of Caesar would have to not only be changed, but the statue seen at the end of Battle removed, as to have another figurehead like that alongside the Lawgiver would simply be confusing to the apes expecting to follow ape law. Of course, this is all conjecture and also gives way to a chicken/egg situation, so it may not be right, but it's just a theory. In any case, to have the end of a story like this end with the destruction of the Earth is not only a great shock, but also a fitting moment, especially in the history of the series.
And there, with a massive explosion it ends and also begins. Maybe. In any case, this is the end of the Planet of the Apes series, and this little retrospective. At least until Rise of the Planet of the Apes comes out. Blimey, it never ends...