Sunday, March 15, 2015

Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Imagine if Aliens spent its first hour having Ripley battle a single xenomoprh on a spaceship before introducing the queen and hive, and you can understand why Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) goes wrong.

The first sequel to the seminal Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes is equal parts expansion of the story and characters introduced in its predecessor and rehash. The new elements presented here are quite good and help flesh out the world and mythology of the series before arriving at a conclusion of startling finality and pessimism. The regurgitated elements find a new, less interesting main character going through the same beats Charlton Heston did, and the second time around is not as effective.

Beneath introduces a new astronaut, Brent (James Franciscus), who arrives on the planet looking for Taylor (Heston), who has disappeared into the Forbidden Zone. For the first forty minutes, Brent goes through the same paces Taylor did: encountering the ape society, meeting Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (now played by David Watson, making this the only of the original Apes movies to not feature Roddy McDowell), and escapes into the Forbidden Zone with a mute human, Nova (Linda Harrison), who was Taylor's girlfriend in the first movie. His discovery that he's on Earth occurs on a subway platform.

This first half of the movie plays like a condensed redo of the first movie. It even opens with stock footage showing the Statue of Liberty climax, and stock footage is never a good way to open any movie that aspires to be epic or convincing; it always comes off as cheap and jarring. The film also glosses over a few questions raised by the end of the last movie. When the original ended, Zaius declared Zira and Cornelius were going to be charged for heresy, and yet that's never mentioned in Beneath, and Zaius is comparably friendlier toward the pair of human sympathizers.

The other problem is Brent. Taylor was a sarcastic cynic, and in the first movie, we got to hear his philosophy and sharp wit. Yes, he could be a man of action, but he also had to match minds with Zaius and convince Zira and Cornelius he wasn't "inferior." Because this portion of the story hurries along, Brent doesn't get a chance to be defined more as a character. That's not a knock on Franciscus, but Brent is there to be dragged by the plot as needs arise, a cog in the machine. Taylor was a stand-in for the human race, an archetype who carried our hopes and dreams and embodied our faults.

Most disappointing of all, the sequel limits Zira and Cornelius to only a handful of inconsequential scenes; they could have been easily written out of the film for all they contribute. Previously, their fates became entwined with Taylor's, and the growing trust and friendship among the three was one of the movie's strengths. Here, they give Brent some clothes, and Zira later helps him escape. It's a hollow echo of the same storyline and has none of the same impact.

The one wrinkle in this sequence is the expansion of the caste system among the apes - with the elite orangutans ruling as political and religious figures, the militant gorillas as police and soldiers, and the intellectual chimpanzees as the low rung on the totem poll. All apes are equal, we were told at Taylor's trial, but ape society is clearly segmented and opposition is suppressed. When the gorilla army marches out of the city, several chimpanzees stage a protest, holding signs and chanting for peace, and the gorillas respond by arresting them.

The movie improves significantly once the ape army marches into the Forbidden Zone, and Brent and Nova fall into the clutches of subterranean mutants. Here the movie proves a most worthy sequel. The mutant humans live underground in an abandoned subway system. Not only are they psychics, capable of controlling minds and communicating telepathically, they worship an atomic bomb, complete with ceremonial robes, prayers, and hymns. Their mantra is "Glory to the Bomb and the Holy Fallout," which made them what they are. Planet of the Apes offered commentary on war and the dangers of religious fundamentalism; with the mutant society, Beneath cleverly intertwines those themes by having a group of humans literally worship mankind's most destructive creation. "We are the keepers of the Divine Bomb. It's the only reason for our existence," the mutants pray. The ugly truth is reflected when the mutants reveal their "inner selves," removing the normal-looking masks they wear to show their deformed faces, mutated by radiation, and it's one of the film's most memorable and shocking moments.

Beneath also lays bare the hypocrisy of both apes and the mutants; both sides believe, in the words of the film, they are "God's chosen." The mutants insist the bomb is a weapon of peace, that they do not kill anyone but instead make their enemies kill each other (by subverting their free will). They also torture people, bombarding their minds with pain while sanctimoniously insisting they have superior brains. Meanwhile, the apes launch a campaign of conquest and call it a "holy war" with themselves as "God's chosen servants." Gorilla general Ursus (James Gregory) gives a speech to the assembled apes, calling for the extermination and enslavement of humans. "The only thing that counts in the end is power, pure, merciless force," he declares. The apes believe they have a manifest destiny, which justifies warfare and slaughter.

In the end, when the apes attack the mutants, the mutant plan is to set off the bomb, which would destroy the planet, and Taylor tells Brent, "We should let them all die." In actuality, Taylor, dying from a gunshot wound, is the one who ends it all, activating the bomb with his dying breath. By this point, he's seen Nova murdered, Brent mercilessly gunned down, and his own plea for help from Dr. Zaius scornfully rejected. "You bloody bastard" are his final words. In an instant, Earth is incinerated; everyone dies. Two warring sides, both convinced of their righteousness and blind to the truth, destroy everything.

From a filmmaking standpoint, director Ted Post does an efficient, workman job. On occasion, he matches the epic style Franklin J. Shaffner created in the previous film, most notably in the Forbidden Zone, but the action scenes are disappointingly routine: nothing equals the excitement or intensity of the first movie's hunt or chases. Post does well with conveying the mutant powers, creating massive visions that appear before the gorilla army such as a wall of fire, rows of crucified apes, and a giant statue of the Lawgiver crying blood. They aren't photo-realistic, but since they are illusions created by the mutants to frighten the apes, they're acceptable. When the mutants use their powers to torture and control, the film uses a bunch of rapid-fire cuts between faces to suggest how overwhelming their power can be.

Ultimately, a script rewrite could have solved a lot of the film's problems. Taylor should have been the main character, the person we follow the whole time, and we should have started with his encounters with the mutants. Reportedly, Heston wasn't interested and only agreed to appear in a couple of scenes. In that case, the torch should have been passed to Zira and Cornelius; they should have been the protagonists, and the movie could have focused on their efforts to stop the war and find Taylor. That would eliminated having a relatable human at the center of the story, but I think it could have worked. It would have been the kind of bold decision the first half of the movie really needs.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes is an appropriate title. Not only does it accurately convey where the story takes place, it indicates this sequel is a step down in quality from the original.

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