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Marathon of the Planet of the Apes: Beneath the Planet of the Apes

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Coming only two years after the first Planet of the Apes movie, this sequel picks up right at the end of the first film. In fact, it gives us an abbreviated version of the last two scenes of the first film to reestablish the context and the world these movies take place in, namely that there’s a planet where apes are the dominant species, and that planet is a far future version of Earth. Oddly, when the time comes to show the first film’s final, iconic line, it cuts out the word “God” from “You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” You can’t just snip that little word out of it to make people less angry or something. The line is what it is, and messing with it just messes with the audience for a few minutes. Which is fine, really, because the first five minutes or so just consist of Taylor and Nova riding around the desert on horseback until something happens and Taylor disappears. Then we cut to another crash site and start the whole process up again.

One of the problems of a sequel to a movie like Planet of the Apes is that, unless you continue following the same character, the audience has to sit through another guy going through the same process as the first guy did, discovering what’s happening on this planet and being incredulous at the whole thing. It’s not a terribly exciting process and, even though Beneath the Planet of the Apes dispenses with a lot of that table-resetting while also continuing the story of the dissent among the ape society, it was still kind of annoying to go through it all again. The new guy in Beneath is Brent, played ably if not spectacularly by James Franciscus who looks remarkably like a slightly younger Charlton Heston. It’s almost as if they knew that a guy who looked like that worked in the first movie so they got a less famous, less talented actor to play basically the same role. In fact, that’s kind of the best way to describe almost every aspect of this movie. It can’t help but be a sequel to a wildly original movie with all the good and ill that such a designation implies.

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What works remarkably well is the story, at least after all that preamble. Now that we know the secret origin of the planet, the writers were able to flesh out the world and invest some solid ideas and philosophy into it. The ape society’s stratification becomes more obvious and overt. The gorillas all wear green robes and are the military force while the orangutans are the religious and scientific leaders and the chimpanzees are relegated to the day-to-day operations and lesser scientific endeavors. And so, while a new character, General Ursus, riles up his gorilla troops and the ever slippery Doctor Zaius goes along with the General’s plans for his own reasons, our two chimp heroes from the first film, Zira and Cornelius help Brent on his way towards finding Taylor as part of his search and rescue operation. There’s a great scene later on as the gorilla army rides out towards the Forbidden Zone (Taylor’s last known whereabouts) but are temporarily stopped by a group of protesting chimps. They’re a peaceful race, basically hippies, and although they all bowed to the General’s might earlier, they have begun to show their own peaceful power. Of course, they’re no match for the General’s actual force, and they’re violently removed from the road in a scene with a good amount of emotional kick. This is the kind of commentary on contemporary situations that good sci-fi can provide, and the film only gets more interesting from there.

The Bomb

Brent follows Taylor’s tracks underground in the Forbidden Zone, finally delivering on the promise of the title. Here the movie stretches its muscles and develops, via matte paintings and some clever set building, a really cool atmosphere and setting for the final half of the film. The abandoned (or not!) underground New York is a lot of fun to play around in and is full of little details that enrich the history of this particular path our planet took. Franciscus is quite good at registering the horror of what to him was home and now feels more like ancient history. It’s not too long, though, before the plot comes back to mess with him. Some ear-piercing sound effects accompany a change in mood and an out of character attempted murder when Brent tries to drown Nova in a fountain. Given how little I cared about Nova from the first movie – which was not corrected in this one, by the way – I didn’t really blame him, but I guess it was more malicious mind control than a commentary on her poor acting and character. That’s right, beneath the planet of the apes live a clan of mutated humans who worship an undetonated but still radioactive atomic bomb. This gives them mind control powers that are skillfully demonstrated in the tortuously long interrogation scene which mostly involves threatening looks, the same piercing notes on the soundtrack, and Franciscus writhing and groaning in pain. It’s… kinda silly. Luckily, once it’s over the movie moves quite swiftly towards its conclusion, only pausing for Brent and an imprisoned Taylor to fight each other in a scene that rivals They Live for length and brutality. Again, silly, but at least this time it was enjoyably so.

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There’s a problem, though. The apes have followed Brent into the underground dwellings of the mutants, and those mutants aren’t the friendliest of beings. To really drive that latter point home, the film reveals that these people aren’t exactly what they seem. Their normal faces turn out to be just masks hiding their true, veiny blue faces. It’s a disturbing effect, one which cleverly visualizes the distinct inhumanity of these supposed humans. They’ve been warped both physically and mentally by the doomsday bomb they treat like a religious figure, becoming the epitome of the people Heston’s Taylor so hated in the opening of the original film. The final confrontation between these mutants and the ape army is well done chaos as each of the three factions tries to accomplish its own ends. The ending is appropriately bleak for a movie which bases a large part of its drama within the realm of nuclear disarmament and religious zeal. Beneath the Planet of the Apes isn’t as well made a movie as its predecessor, nor is it anywhere near as iconic, but the ideas and story are enough to recommend it to any fan of the first film.

Top 100 Movies (2014 Edition): Scenes from Numbers 20, 67, 42, 21, and 35

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I’m back  after a quick journey to the Planet of the Apes with some more scenes from movies on my top 100 list. See entries onetwo, three and four for more scenes, and my full list for full listiness. As always, if the title of a movie is a link, follow it to find my full review.

20. Moonrise Kingdom – Cousin Ben asks the Important Questions

Yeah, Moonrise Kingdom is probably Wes Anderson’s sweetest film, since it concerns the puppy love between two pre-teens on a twee little island, but it’s also really really funny. Here’s a little clip that illustrates how much joy there is in the film. Ben Schwartzman’s Cousin Ben character is just the jolt the movie needs at this point to bring the whole thing home. Look at how much fun he’s having! Sliding down the pole instead of climbing the ladder, getting all exasperated at the annoying kids. This is great stuff.

67. The Lion in Winter – “What does it matter…”

“But wait!” you cry out to me, “This isn’t a scene from the movie!” No, technically not. But I’m also not going to do much better than this, so deal with it. If the best fictional president can’t convince you of the movie’s greatness, I don’t know who can.

42. Hot Fuzz – A Terrible Accident

Edgar Wright is a master visual film maker. I know that the visual qualifier shouldn’t really be a necessary addition, but it is. There are so few directors that are able to match his wit, sense of pacing, and penchant for layered frames which add to the aural jokes coming from his more-than-able stars. Here it’s the name of the soon-to-be-dead guy and the shock of his death that is absolutely heightened by the build up (not only do we have a ticking clock but also a spinning drum thing) and the pay-off (a surprisingly cartoonish spurt of blood, followed by a few more of the same). That’s how you do it, friends.

21. The Rules of the Game – Danse Macabre

This is, I think, the most recent addition to my list, as I watched it only a few days before compiling the final version of the list. Jean Renoir (briefly seen here in a bear suit) creates in this scene a parallel between the ritualized danse macabre, the staged entertainment, and the silly love games that the rich attendees play. The acrobatic skill of the skeleton is matched by the fluidity of the camera in the second half of the scene (note the lack of cuts here) to draw the parallels even further. Yes, the games are fun, but death will still come in the end.

35. Sherlock Jr. – Into the movies

Ok, so let’s just move swiftly past the genius of the first minute or so of this scene. It’s right there, you can see it. The slapstick of the latter half as Buster Keaton has only a few moments to acclimate to his new surroundings (brought about by a cut in a movie) is at an all-time great level, given both the imagination and the physicality of the idea and Keaton’s performance. The best gag comes towards the end, when Keaton prepares to jump into the ocean which gets swapped out for a snow bank as he is in flight. Talk about craftsmanship in joke telling!

That’s the end of today’s selection. Let me know what you liked, or if you love another scene from these movies.

Marathon of the Planet of the Apes: Planet of the Apes (1968)

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I recently picked up the 5 movie set of all the classic Planet of the Apes movies. I had seen the first one before, probably like ten years or so ago, and I’m a big fan of the two recent prequel(?) films. I know the four movies after the original don’t have the best of reputations, but I also knew that they had their adherents and maybe I would join their number. Also, it was only 20 dollars, so at 4 bucks a movie I wasn’t taking that big a risk. I foresee reviews of all 5 movies, plus some of the extra features and some additional thoughts on certain aspects of the movies that don’t fit in with the reviews. Please do join in if you have the means or inclination!

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Let’s start off with a consideration of just how weird a choice Charlton Heston is for the hero role here. We are introduced to him (after some semi-trippy effects during the credits) recording a final monologue before he freezes himself for the final leg of a journey back to earth. The idea goes that he and his crew will have only aged a few years while hundreds – if not thousands – have passed on Earth. This throws Taylor (Heston) into an existential funk, and he gets philosophical on us:

“You who are reading me now are a different breed – I hope a better one. I leave the 20th century with no regrets. But one more thing – if anybody’s listening, that is. Nothing scientific. It’s purely personal. But seen from out here everything seems different. Time bends. Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely. That’s about it. Tell me, though. Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor’s children starving?”

The writing there is about as on the nose as is possible, but what do you expect from Rod Serling, he of The Twilight Zone? I actually really liked this speech, even if there was a kind of weird disconnect seeing and hearing Charlton Heston, bastion of the NRA, lamenting the ideas of war and violence. If Taylor is supposed to be a stand in for the peaceniks of the 60s and 70s, why does he clutch his gun with such zeal later in the film? Are we supposed to be critical of his later actions? Or maybe he’s supposed to be the final warring human. Every other human that exists in the movie is basically a cow, too dumb to be violent. In that way his questions at the beginning of the movie have been answered. No, man no longer makes war against his brother, nor does he keep his neighbor starving. They’re too stupid to be jealous or evil. The apes, on the other hand…

Yes, the great conceit of these movies is that on this mysterious planet (we’ll get to that later), the other primates have risen to the top of the food chain and have developed some suspiciously human culture and language while humans have basically become glorified livestock. It’s a clever way of getting us to look at our own society in a different way. If we can identify the way backward religions sometimes take over policy or science debates in this ape-based culture, maybe we can begin to see just how weird our own system is. And that the apes are pretty much where we are now scientifically, culturally, and intellectually allows for that metaphor to develop easily and organically. It just feels a little off. If this is really a place that has apes in charge instead of humans, wouldn’t there be more than nominal changes in their ways of life? They seem to be a monogamous culture, but don’t apes in the wild have a much wider definition of what is acceptable when it comes to interpersonal relationships? How lucky is it that these apes speak the same language that Taylor does? We’ve seen English evolve over the last 700 or so years, how is it that these apes, who have, according to the movie, evolved on this planet as the dominant species, speak the exact same kind of English as Taylor? There are a hundred of this little niggling ideas that pop up throughout the movie. This is the risk that allegories run. If they aren’t perfect the seams show up and the audience can get pulled out of the film.

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Luckily, none of these little annoyances harm the film too much. Planet of the Apes isn’t trying to be 2001, although the effects are sometimes kinda similar. No, Planet of the Apes has a much pulpier road to hoe, and it does so very entertainingly. While Charlton Heston might have been the wrong choice idealistically, he’s perfect when he’s saying the lines that have become iconic. You get a chill of recognition when you hear him yell, “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” but you also get a chill because his pain and terror are so real. Or, maybe real isn’t quite the right word to use here. Not much on the Planet of the Apes is real, excepting maybe the landscapes and horses, but it does have a really fun heightened quality to it. It’s as unsubtle as a movie can be in all respects. The allegory is right there, staring you in the face, and the hero is Charlton Heston! He’s never been the quietest of actors. His nearly biblical line readings here almost all work, though, because it fits in with everything else. His co-stars also shine. Maurice Evans plays Dr. Zaius, the zealous head scientist who also happens to be the leader of the ape religion. There’s a heck of a lot of talk about heresy when the two young chimps played by Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall claim that their captive human, Taylor, can talk. It seems an easy claim to prove, but the movie manages to wrestle 20 minutes or so of drama from the whole scenario. There’s a big courtroom scene and I’m not entirely sure what gets accomplished there, other than that those two chimps (Cornelius and Zira) become outcasts and, later, organize a jailbreak for Taylor and his dumb human friend, Nova. She’s played by Linda Harrison in what must be the most thankless role in sci-fi until Megan Fox graced three Transformers movies with her wooden presence. Harrison is the predecessor to Fox in more ways than one, since as far as I can tell she’s only here to look pretty and give Heston somebody to talk at.

Ok, now comes the time in the review when I talk about the ending. If you have somehow missed what happens in the last minute of screentime here, I am both amazed at your diligence in avoiding spoilers and shocked at your cultural ignorance. Either way, leave now if you don’t want to know what happens at the end of a movie from 45 years ago which contains one of the most iconic images in cinema. Go watch the movie, geez.

Now that all those weirdos are gone, let’s look at the ending. Firstly, it’s totally awesome. The slow reveal of the spikes on the top of the Statue of Liberty’s head is genius because at first they are only noticeable for being crafted rather than a natural occurrence. And slowly we see more and more of the structure and we begin to piece it together. I can’t imagine seeing this without knowing the twist, and I can’t fathom how critics kept it to themselves in their reviews. It must have been wild, and it’s no wonder that the movie was a bit of a phenomenon when it came out. To top it off, Heston adds beautifully to the scene with another perfect line, “You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” His sadness and anger is real. Over the top, but imbued with a genuine sense of the tragedy he (correctly) imagines befell his planet. This twist explains some of the issues I brought up earlier, like explaining why apes would be speaking English (although not why it hasn’t evolved at all) and also explains why there’s no real history to the ape civilization, or at least none that we have been given in the course of the film. In order to hide the twist the writers had to hide much of the world building that might have normally happened. I hope the four follow-ups take some time to develop this version of the future, because it’s a fascinating one. And the ending is just the best thing. It makes sense, it wraps up the drama and leaves the door open to further explorations of the world, and it’s just so much fun. That’s the lasting impression I had of the movie. There’s a lot going on allegorically speaking and the majority of it is actually effective, but the sense of fun that it has thanks to Heston’s overacting and the creativity involved in crafting the world and populating it with interesting people leaves an even bigger impression. It’s a great start to this marathon and a great film.

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