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Review: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Directed by: Ted Post

Premise: The second Planet of the Apes film. Picking up immediately where the first film left off, Brent (James Franciscus) another time traveling astronaut, arrives on a mission to discover what happened to Taylor (Charlton Heston). Brent finds himself on the run from the ape army and flees to the Forbidden Zone where he discovers mutant humans with telepathic powers.

What Works: Beneath the Planet of the Apes is a mixed sequel but at its best moments the film is an impressive expansion on the original film. Although the opening rehashes some of the familiar moments from the first picture, the film moves through that very quickly and gets to the new material. Beneath is distinguished as a sequel in that it opens up the canvas of the Apes story world and makes some bold storytelling choices, especially in its finale. The first film established a civilization of talking apes that was intended to be a metaphor for our own society. In that film, the existence of Taylor threatens the ideology underpinning the social structure of ape society. In Beneath, that social criticism is more overt. This film combines militarism with religious fanaticism, as the leaders of ape society plan a military venture into the Forbidden Zone. This new conflict broadens the scope of the world of Planet of the Apes and the implications of the allegory. The military conflict between apes and mutants also gives the film an opportunity for more nuanced characterization within ape society in the tension between Doctor Zaius and General Ursus. Maurice Evans returns as Zaius and he continues his complex portrayal of a compromised intellectual, expressing his misgivings about the invasion even while supporting it. James Gregroy plays General Ursus and he has a rousing Patton-esque presence. These characters and their dueling ideas and storylines makes for a startling combination of imagery that in some ways is even more potent now than when it was made. Aside from the political content, Beneath the Planet of the Apes also departs from the first film in its action oriented approach. Where the original was much more of a Twilight Zone-style mystery, the filmmakers smartly realize that the surprise of the first film cannot be topped and instead move on with the story. Beneath is fast paced and contains more and larger action scenes that equal or surpass the original film.  

What Doesn’t: Continuity is not the strongest attribute of the original Planet of the Apes series and the films often played fast and loose with their logic. Beneath the Planet of the Apes makes the biggest strains on credibility in the Apes series. The most obvious foible is the premise of the film itself: that an astronaut would be sent on a rescue mission to find out what happened to Taylor. This doesn’t make any sense and the film never explains why he was sent on this mission. The underground mutants are also a bit silly. Where the first film succeeded in making the talking apes convincing and transcended the pulp qualities of its premise, the second film is less successful and it comes across more like the 1950s drive-in sci-fi that the original Apes film surpassed. Although it is important to remember that the mutants, like the apes, are intended to be taken metaphorically rather than literally, their hokey qualities do nag at the viewer.

DVD extras: Featurettes and trailers.

Bottom Line: Beneath the Planet of the Apes is overall a successful sequel. It is a compromised film, caught between commercial motivations to rehash the original picture and a bolder but riskier creative vision. The end result is a picture that is clumsy but ambitious as it expands the canvas of The Planet of the Apes, bringing its political subtext to the forefront, and delivers the thrills and adventure that gave the first film its wide audience appeal.

Episode: #352 (August 14, 2011)