Monday, May 13, 2024

Chimpan-A to Chimpan-Z: Almighty bomb


BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES

1970
Directed by Ted Post
Written by Paul Dehn and Mort Abrahams

Spoilers: severe


In 1968, Planet of the Apes hit big, and so its producer Arthur P. Jacobs, along with his associate producer Mort Abrahams, were likely prepared when Richard Zanuck and 20th Century Fox came calling for a sequel to a movie the latter had barely wanted to make in the first place.  Zanuck was swift to take credit, nonetheless, and even framed the sequel for its most reluctant participant, Charlton Heston, as something Heston owed him, for showing any faith whatsoever in the self-contained single movie Heston had wanted to make, not to mention for letting him say bad words at the end of it.  That's not even sarcasm, incidentally: Heston actually did have to fight for that, explaining that it wasn't taking the Lord's name in vain, it truly was a curse; and since Heston's Taylor certainly becomes his God's instrument by the end of this sequel, I assume that everyone did, in fact, get to walk away from it happy.  Or at least with their resentments assuaged, Zanuck especially.

The sequel, anyway, would also prove a hit, not quite of the same size, but enough to birth a franchise, and over the course of the next few years, Jacobs and Fox would ride it until it rattled completely apart, which happened quickly because they rode it hard: in four years, they made four sequels, one annually until 1973, whereupon the descending line for profits threatened to overtake the descending line for budgets, and the first phase of the series came to a close.  (A second phase, involving successive live-action and animated television shows, followed.  I know very little about either.)  All of the next three sequelsand we can go all the way out to the franchise's short-lived third phase, coterminous with Tim Burton's 2000 Planet of the Apes remakedraw to some degree or another from the ideas in Pierre Boulle's source novel that had been lost to the streamlining Rod Serling and Michael Wilson did for the original film.  This first sequel, however, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, is practically all original.  Hence it's the most original thing in the whole franchise, up to the 2010s, or maybe everincluding its predecessor, which at least sort of tells the novel's story.  The first sequel, weirdly, is also the last story in the entire franchise, chronologically.


Well, it would kind of have to be, as we'll discover.  But weird is the word, for Beneath foreclosed forever the prospect of any natural development of the Apes saga.  Presently bypassing a busy Serling, Jacobs and Abrahams sought out Boulle's input instead, and, reasonably enough, Boulle's treatment went exactly where you'd expect a PotA sequel to go: it was called Planet of the Men, completing the revolutionary cycle Taylor beganyawn.  I'm sure it would've been perfectly fine, but it sure wouldn't have been a Planet of the Apes.  It is to Jacobs, Abrahams, and Zanuck's credit that they recognized the strangeness of their surprise hit, and knew that "expected" wasn't going to cut it.  It had to surprise you, even shock you; moreover, it's 1970, and franchises are barely a thing yet, so who cares.  Clearly, very little could've been deemed too weird.  (The only idea that I know got shut down was the half-human/half-ape child ofI don't know, but let's say Taylor and Zira, since it's fun to imagine how Cornelius reactsand this, obviously, only because they worried about genuinely offending people and/or grossing them out.  It's a pity that this idea couldn't have found its way in somewhere, precisely because it would gross me out.)  The sole extrinsic demands, which honestly could be deemed artistic integrity, were to always surprise its audience while honoring the nihilism of the first film, and I still find it amazing that an entire profitable film series was built on the idea of always trying to be even crazier than the movie about the apes that evolved from men and even bleaker than the movie that ends with the Statue of Liberty serving as the cenotaph of an entire species.

Beneath is arguably not the craziest Apes film, but as for whether it's the very bleakest of them, or actually the least, since this a question heavily intertwined with whether it's also the craziest, we can get back to both questions later on.  For now, let's just say the story that Abrahams whipped up for screenwriter Paul Dehn, is, by any outside metric, fucking bananas.  Mostly, Beneath gets bananas in its pursuit of its themes, a more heavily-specified anti-war and anti-nuke message than PotA's blunt reveal of an atomic holocaust; but by no means is this exclusively the case, because that would domesticate it too much, and this is just too crooked a house for any completely coherent allegory to ever make a comfortable home in.  Accordingly, it's bizarre, but readily-parsed, to witness a bunch of gorillas on horseback stampede through a bunch of chimpanzee hippies protesting the gorillas' new war.  It is far more off-kilter, even genuinely estranging, however, for our ape heroine to preserve her secrets by inventing a bout of spousal abuse at the hands of our ape hero, which our ape antagonist accepts as normal and salutary.  And it feels like you've leaned back too far in your chair to consider the particulars of the effort that it must have required, to satisfy the imaginative impulse to place a major plot exposition scene inside an ape sauna, where a gorilla and an orangutan have a fairly long conversation, regarding their respective approaches to their human infestation, in the nude.  I feel that this comparatively-quiet scene sums up Beneath the Planet of the Apes almost as well as any of its more infamous batshit swerves, and that wouldn't be entirely unfair to the rest, either: for despite a runtime of 95 minutes, Beneath is perceptibly more interested in actually exploring the textures of its gonzo sci-fi societies than PotA before it, which was focused more on the broader strokes.


The unfortunate downside is that Beneath is, also, very blatantly broken, and if it's not always the movie's fault, it's structured not merely oddly, butin some respectsactively badly.  Our "ape heroine"?  She's in the movie even less than our human hero is, and our human hero has already been reduced to an extended cameo, requiring his replacement with another human hero; our "ape hero" is played by a completely different actor than he was last time (Roddy McDowall was busy making his ill-starred directorial debut, Tam Lin), and sure, that's okay, these things happen.  But it should have cautioned somebody, perhaps new director Ted Post (PotA director Franklin Schaffner was also busy, on Patton), to have figured out some other way to do a "previously on" recapBeneath sees fit to open with the last two minutes of PotAwithout shoving McDowall's Cornelius into our faces, then expecting us to accept the new guy regardless.  (On the other hand, it's a testament to the tremendous excellence of John Chambers's ape makeup that a different man in an ape mask could be so jarring.  Though they obviously could've tried slightly harder at casting a remotely-convincing McDowallalike.)

Perhaps worst of all, the relatively firm science fiction of PotA, that was still kind of plausible in its outline, is banished.  What we now have is pure overheated pulp, even if I'll argue that's a fair trade for what we ultimately get out of it.  As for the film's halved budget, in line with sequel practice at the timealbeit also a symptom of Fox's incredibly poor financial health in 1970, which had gotten so bad that they were counting on this self-evident cult object to rescue themI actually have very few negative things to say about it.  It really only seriously matters the once, in a council meeting where, despite some efforts to minimize the problem by placing the highest-quality jobs up front, they obviously didn't have nearly enough good masks to have this many apes.  But besides that, maybe it's a Demetrius and the Gladiators effect, with the principal "Ape City" sets still standing from PotA and not held against this film's $2.5 million budget, because otherwise I'd aver it looks like it cost more.


So: as we saw at the end of PotA, Taylor (Heston) has learned it was Earth, and they blew it up, and he and his mute Homo inferior girlfriend, Nova (Linda Harrison), have wandered out into the Forbidden Zone in the hopes of finding whatever might exist beyond it.  They don't get tremendously far before being surrounded by uncanny visions of flame and shifting landscapes, which somehow swallow Taylor without even making a hole for him.  Nova, understandably, is terrified, and flees back in the direction of Ape City (she has, at least, learned how to ride a horse in the interim), but winds up smacking into the new guy from the past, Brent (James Franciscus), an astronaut like Taylor, and the sole survivor of his own relativistic-speeds flight into the future, which we learn (in Beneath's least-necessary clarification) was a "rescue mission" for Taylor despite there being no way of knowing that Taylor needed rescuing and, presumably, no way anybody would volunteer to "rescue" a guy from deep time for that reason alone.

Anyway, Brent is here, and is confused by Nova's existence, but not nearly as confused as he is when he gets to Ape City just in time to witness the gorilla general, Ursus (James Gregory), declare total war on what he has reasoned must be a human refuge out in the Forbidden Zone, much to the chagrin of Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), who nonetheless will accompany his expeditionary force despite so much of Ape Law advocating against such heresy (this is only the semi-broken part, though it's unfortunately often unclear what's "development since the last film" for Zaius in Beneath and what's "this is a different orangutan character altogether").  Nonetheless, Nova brings Brent to the home of Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) and Dr. Cornelius (our Not-Roddy-McDowall, David Watson), who basically point Brent and Nova straight back in the direction they came from, then disappear from the moviewe'll see what Zira and Cornelius were up to, next time, on Escape From the Planet of Apesthough not before essaying the single funniest joke, I think, in the entire franchise, disorientingly placed next to what might be its second-funniest joke (the spousal abuse ruse).  By itself it justifies casting Franciscus, who is no Charlton Heston but whom I have personally always enjoyed as an actor, but whether they were hedging their bets, and contemplating actually recasting Taylor, just as they'd recast Cornelius, what they wound up with for this PotA sequel was a guy who's almost distractingly identical to Charlton Heston in coloration, but not somebody you'd actually mistake for Heston at any closer than about a hundred yards, because you're not a distant future chimpanzee racist.  Zira is, however, and is very surprised to find "Taylor!" in her house when she'd just spent so much energy in the last film getting rid of him.  There's a lot more in Beneath that's explicitly "commentary on 1970" than PotA was "commentary on 1968"I mentioned, earlier, chimpanzee hippiesbut this twist on the "how can you tell 'em apart?" trope (like the preceding "spousal abuse" gag) simultaneously manages to be sharply satirical and hugely funny in ways that are downright dizzying in a PotA sequel.


That dizziness only increases, because Brent and Nova go right back to the Forbidden Zone, following some chase action that betraysmostly in a good way, though I'm frankly not super-enthusiastic about a hazardous horse-trip stunt in a film franchise about animal crueltythat Post's primary directorial experience was as a maker of Westerns, and he simply kind of fell into making an Apes movie (the real tell might be the wagon mini-setpiece, where a gorilla gets beaned by a passing tree limb).  Somehow, though, Post turns out to also be good at science fiction, or at least this sub-type of it, which expands PotA's own strategy of continually confronting you with the strange; and once back into the Forbidden Zone, Post chooses a path between Silver Age comic book pictorialism and straight-up surrealism, as Brent and Nova venturewait for itbeneath the Planet of the Apes.  The first phase of this catabasis just involves Brent, like Taylor before him, discovering the truth of his situation (and to spare a kind word for Franciscus, I like the very different choices he makes in relation to Heston: Brent's not a nihilist, like Taylor, and rather than it fulfilling his prophecies, he can only barely comprehend how frightening and sad this world is), and it's clearly where a significant portion of that $2.5 million went, with its children's pop-up book dioramas of New York ruins buried beneath, I assume, atomically-melted rock and sediment.  (This is my second watch of Beneath, and I was surprised to find my opinion on the sets has changed completely: I used to think they were stupid, and of course they arethese caverns are also remarkably brightly-lit, with DP Milton Krasner opting for "complete readability" throughout, up to and including for scenes taking place in abandoned subway tunnelsbut they are, even so, absolutely a fair way to translate the direct and immediate aesthetic of PotA's ending into a whole series of post-apocalyptic tableaux.)

Then they meet the psychic mutants.

So, if it hasn't before, Beneath now sails completely off the crazy cliff.  (Taylor also returns, a captive of the mutants, and sometimes Beneath merely wishes to satisfy your basest matinee movie cravings, rather than to set fire to your reason with visions of giant ape Lawgivers bleeding from their eyes: if you're wondering whether Heston and Franciscus get to have an awesome mind-controlled Kirk vs. Spock fight, the answer is a resounding "yes.")  But there is so much to love in the craziness here: for one, it is "good Planet of the Apes," in that you didn't see it coming, and it bears allegorical portent and incredibly sour social satire, in the form of a society that literally worships a (somehow) still-functioning thermonuclear doomsday bomb, having reappropriated Christian liturgy to honor the bomb, altogether a distorted mirror of the apes' religion which was already a distorted mirror of real religion; there is likewise the matter of their unvocalized telepathy, that continues Apes' preoccupation with the power of speech and the horror of silencethe surface humans can't speak, the mutants just usually don't, finding it "primitive," fit principally for religious rite or talking to soft-brained throwbacks like Brent.  Beyond that, though, they're just a trip, another fun Star Trek society to explore and punch.  Of course, in Apes' more caustic manner, these thrills are always delivered by patently aggressive means, particularly the enervating editing (and sound editing) around their thoughtcasting and illusions that feels like the perfect union of "B-grade sci-fi" and "art film" (not to mention the nasty bit where the film alludes to their excitement over the prospect of mind-controlled rape), with their scenes accompanied by the most inhuman strains of Leonard Rosenman's Goldsmith-like bizarro score.  They're also a well-acted ensemble: like grown-up versions of creepily-unemotive children, constantly extolling the virtues of their "peaceful" bomb whilst delusionally plotting genocide-suicide.  For the kicker, they're incredibly disgusting, as we see when they reveal their "inner selves unto their God," even more direct mockeries of modern humanity (and with more unnervingly horrific make-up jobs) than the apes themselves.


This is all excellent, and then they give us the most self-destructive finale of all time, which came about somewhat by accident: during production, Zanuck was fired from the Fox presidency, by his own father, and now seeing things Heston's way about the superfluity of a second Apes film, decided to take his pain and humiliation out on his studio with the very hit franchise he'd brought into their fold.  For the record, Heston is still aces here in his limited role, and the late shift towards his "burn it all down" idea must've galvanized him, because he's laying its groundwork awfully well, unsubtle enough for it to click with the audience what's about to happen but still "subtle" on a Hestonian scale; it even obscures the film's only unacceptable idea, which permits Nova to speak Taylor's name, notionally promising a redemption of the neo-human mind.  I still don't like that (it badly futzes with Harrison's physical performance, which, in its greater amount of screentime here, I daresay rises to a solidly thought-through evocation of semi-atavism, even if her contemporary makeup still sucks).  But it doesn't matter, because this great breakthrough winds up just one more tragic irony on the pile.

And so: gleefully, and with the enthusiastic assent of Post (I can't uncover how Jacobs reacted), Beneath the Planet of the Apes... ends the world.  Not like PotA "ended" the world, which left a non-human society in place, and life on Earth persisting, and all that.  Nope: this time, the hero of the first film deliberately blows up the entire planet.  I abhor the bland narrator who closes out the film by explaining what has been perfectly-well explained to us already (because, as noted, the only correct choice would be "silence").  But I adore the ending itself, even if I also have trouble taking it seriously: it feels rabid, like a self-defeating attempt to "top" PotA, without any of the same ice-cold chill to it; it's more laugh-out-loud funny than "actually bleak."  Yet the absurdity of it still has a power, and it also feels like it's blowing up the very idea of "sequels," a metacinematic critique decades ahead of its time.  Maybe above all, it's just the purest expression of this film'sthis franchise'swhole madhouse ethos.  Of course, it didn't stop them from delivering three more films, which only makes it even more delightfully insane.

Score: 9/10

2 comments:

  1. Before I actually sat down and watched the whole thing myself I was always a little baffled how 'Beneath' apparently was NOT far and away the consensus pick for worst Planet of the Apes movie - it got 3 whole stars from TV Guide (yes there was a time when that meant something)!

    Because everything about it just screams "we pulled this directly out of our ass" even from a mile away. You're telling me there's been a race of psychic mutants beneath the planet of the apes this whole time?? Get outta here with that shit! And they had the shameless nerve to pull BOTH "the star of the last movie is barely in this one (because he didn't want to be in it)" and "let us introduce a transparently identical poor-man's replacement substitute for the previous star (because he didn't want to be in this)" maneuvers in the same damn movie! Even the self-consciously "gutsy" move of blowing the whole planet up was transparently a desperate ploy to capture some of the thunder of the previous film's ending as well as a tacit admission by the movie itself that its own existence was pointless and stupid. I think only 'Exorcist II: The Heretic' and 'Highlander II: The Quickening' best it in a race for "Most Obviously Bullshit Direct Sequel" award.

    But then I watched it in full for the first time, years after my initial exposure to it in that nifty Planet of the Apes documentary hosted by Roddy McDowell they used to show on AMC. Then I understood (and yes indeed, it was that ape sauna scene where it started to win me over). 'Beneath' is charming and fun, and while its plot is a COMPLETE load of bullshit (ape shit?), in context it at least feels like it's coming from a genuine place of finding an exciting new angle on the material. It plays like a wild and oddly satisfying crossover movie between PotA and some imaginary other Charlton Heston post-apocalyptic 70s sci-fi flick a la 'The Omega Man' (and the only reason they didn't just get Heston to play both versions of himself was so you could tell them apart).

    A 9/10 might be a little further than I'm willing to go, but I definitely can't hate 'Beneath the Planet of the Apes.'

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    1. I'm kind of shocked (and I hope no one else has this idea, because I do not actually want to see it) there's not some IDW comic or something that has Taylor meet the Neville and Thorn from The Omega Man and Soylent Green. Whereupon James Franciscus rides in on his allosaurus.

      I was wavering between 8/10 and 9/10 and went for the gusto, in part because I was sure Escape was going to get an 8. I don't regret it yet, but I don't know if I never will.

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