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.
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.
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.
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.