Monday, August 01, 2011

Zaki's Retro Review: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

(Read my retro review of the first Planet of the Apes here)

Following its meteoric reception from audiences and critics alike, the notion of sequelizing Planet of the Apes very quickly gained traction. But when it came time to put said sequel together, producer Arthur P. Jacobs and home studio Twentieth Century Fox found themselves with a problem. Several problems, actually. With the first film having come to a fairly natural, definitive conclusion, they had no story. And with Franklin Schaffner off prepping Patton (also for Fox), they had no director. Most worrying of all though, with Chuck Heston categorically uninterested in returning, they had no star.

The legendary actor had labored long and hard for the project before, during and after production, helping not only to shop it to various studios, but even going so far as to appear in a test reel for Fox to prove to the studio's higher-ups that the apes' makeup appliances would play without getting laughed off the screen, and it's probably fair to say that without Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes wouldn't have gotten made at all. But while he was justifiably proud of the effort invested, he also felt that whatever story there was had already been told, and he wasn't particularly interested in more (as he referred to it) "adventures among the monkeys."

Nonetheless, Fox was bound and determined to revisit their new golden monkey, and the studio's then-honcho Richard Zanuck, who'd greenlit the first Apes and reaped the rewards from its success, explicated to Heston that without him, any Apes sequel was immediately stillborn. With Zanuck appealing to the actor's legendary sense of fair play for having backed the film when no one else would, Heston eventually came around, but the resultant compromise they arrived at is a perfect metaphor for the compromised nature of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, marking the property's transition from "prestigious" to "product."

Heston proposed that he'd make a brief appearance in the first act, wherein he'd promptly be killed off. The studio could then promote the presence of the original star, while that same original star would also be off the hook for any other Apes endeavors. Win-win for everyone, right? Well, in the end, they finessed things so he would appear briefly at the beginning and again at the end, but what the studio didn't or couldn't have anticipated is just how much of a void his absence left for the remainder of the running time, and how deeply that absence would be felt.

In light of Heston's reduced workload, the decision was made to frame the story around new protagonist John Brent (James Franciscus, who works very, very hard, but never manages to come off as anything more than a "made for TV" version of his predecessor), sent on a rescue mission to find the missing Taylor (though why a rescue mission is necessary at all for what was clearly described last time as a one-way trip is never explained). 

Picking up where we left off, with Taylor finding the destroyed statue and taking off into the desert with his mate Nova (Linda Harrison), we move onto Brent, whose own ship has just crashed on the monkey planet. After some initial disorientation, he finds Nova wandering alone on horseback, with Taylor's dogtags dangling around her neck (convenient!). Making their way back to Ape City and witnessing the plans of gorilla General Ursus (James Gregory) to launch an invasion of the forbidden territories with his ape army, Brent briefly touches base with Zira and Cornelius (with Kim Hunter reprising the former, but the latter played by David Watson this time around), who fill him in on all the necessary exposition. 

Setting out into the Forbidden Zone, Brent and Nova soon come across a race of mutated humans who've acquired telepathic powers after sustained exposure to post-fallout radiation, and who worship a nuclear bomb that has the power to destroy the Earth. It's here that he and we finally reconnect with Taylor, who's been sitting in a cage as a prisoner of the mutants (a prisoner for what, exactly, we never really learn). It now falls on Brent and Taylor to stop the encroaching army of gorillas from overtaking the mutants' civilization and potentially setting off the doomsday bomb. 

Now, we knew going in that there was no way to top the original, which was one of those rare instances of everything just firing on all cylinders. And while we've acknowledged that it was never intended as anything more than a one-off, that's never stopped the industry from cannibalizing a good idea, so the question was never "Should they do a sequel to Planet of the Apes?" but, "Can they do it well?" And the problem with Beneath is that rather than find those thematic touchstones that people most responded to and extrapolate from there, the filmmakers seemed intent on topping the visceral visuals of the first one without placing them in a proper thematic context.

Thus, instead of the one-of-a-kind reveal of the apes during the hunt, we have the mutants pulling off their lifelike rubber masks and revealing the scarred, irradiated faces underneath (which raises the question of why they'd feel the need to look "normal" if they all look mutated anyway). Since the half-sunken Lady Liberty went over so well, they no doubt figured it'd be even more of a shock to just bury the whole dang city of New York, with much of the underground action taking place in the wreckage of St. Patrick's Cathedral (where, in a legitimately unsettling scene, the mutants hold their masses to the Holy Bomb) and Radio City Music Hall.

There are a lot of good ideas peppered throughout the screenplay by Paul Dehn (taking over the storytelling reins after separate treatments from both Rod Serling and Pierre Boulle were rejected), with the mutants' civilization serving as a fascinating example of '70s-era futurism, and the military misadventure of the ape army providing fodder for some (very on-the-nose) commentary on the then-unfolding Vietnam war.

The problem is that none of these ideas are properly nurtured. Why, for example, have the mutants suddenly made themselves known to the apes after thousands of years of anonymity. Why do the apes suddenly need to venture into the desert at all? The answer to both is because the plot dictates it, which is never a good way to construct a story, and it marks Beneath as one of the weakest entries in the Apes catalogue.

I do have to give props to director Ted Post for doing a perfectly functional job with what he's given. Having seen Post's work from a few years later as helmer of another second installment of another iconic '70s franchise, the Dirty Harry movie Magnum Force, I know Post is capable of good work, but Schaffner had left some very big shoes for him to fill, and the disjointed story (conceived by co-producer Mort Abrahams) really didn't do him many favors. Also doing an adequate job but faltering under the shadow of his predecessor is composer Leonard Rosenman, who tries very hard to mimic Goldsmiths dissonant, unnerving score.

Despite the inherent deficiencies, there are some nice moments sprinkled throughout, such as Brent's discovery of the ruined Queensboro Plaza and his subsequent realization of where/when he is, which nicely contrasts with Heston's bombastic "Damn you all to hell!" from last time. But it seems that not much was really thought through beyond those "moments," and all too often the seams show. The introduction of those mind-bending mutants and their rubber masks into the mix simply seems like a bridge too far for folks who'd already invested the majority of their suspension of disbelief into the whole "talking apes" thing. 

In the closing moments, things very quickly come to a boil for our erstwhile heroes, and after a fiery final exchange between Taylor and Zaius (still played by Maurice Evans) at the feet of the now-armed doomsday bomb, in which the human's last plea for help in preventing the end of the world is rebuffed, the mortally-wounded astronaut allows himself to fall on the bomb's activating mechanism. With the screen fading to white, narrator Paul Frees mournfully informs us that the Earth "is now dead." And that's that.

Though you have to give the scenarists and studio credit for being willing to take the nuclear option -- literally! -- with their story, by all accounts the ending emerged more from necessity than anything else, with production stretching on and on without a proper finish line, and Heston himself devising the "Taylor blows up the world" scenario as a failsafe to prevent him from being roped back into any more damn, dirty Apes movies. Still, if they were looking to top the mind-blowing shocker of the Statue of Liberty coda, they got it -- for sheer bugf**k craziness if nothing else. 

And while it underperformed relative to the first film's success, both with critics and at the box office, Beneath the Planet of the Apes still managed to overperform relative to its own reduced budget, ending up as another very solid win for the studio, proving there was still an audience out there. Though Beneath's ending -- with the entire planet charred to a cinder along with everyone else on it -- would seem to have precluded any further Apes forays, writer Paul Dehn received a frantic memo from producer Jacobs shortly after its release:

"Apes exist. Sequel required."

To Be Continued...


Glenn Greenberg said...

"Why, for example, have the mutants suddenly made themselves known to the apes after thousands of years of anonymity."

Wasn't it because the apes had started to venture into the Forbidden Zone? As I recall, it was established in the first film that Cornelius had been on an archaeological expedition in the Forbidden Zone a year or so earlier, so I always presumed that the presence of apes in the region--even peaceful scientist apes--spooked the mutants and they started taking action to protect/defend themselves. Am I misremembering?

In the end, none of it matters anyway, since we all know only the first film counts! :-)

Glenn Greenberg said...

And here's a question for you, Zaki--

In your opinion, did Taylor intend to blow up the world and everyone on it with his dying breath, or was it just happenstance that his hand landed on the button that would activate the bomb?

I've always had a problem with the idea that he would take it upon himself to decide that the world doesn't deserve to exist anymore, that he would decide to end all life--even the apes that showed him compassion and kindness, Cornelius and Zira.

But I'm interested in knowing what you think.

Zaki said...

Yeah, I think as far as explanations go, that works pretty well for why the mutants are starting to cause trouble, but it still can't help but feel arbitrary.

And you're not kidding when you talk about the first one being the only one that counts, because it's as tonally and stylistically distinct from its successors as the first STAR WARS is from the saga that followed it.

As far as whether Taylor meant to blow the world up, the Marvel Comics adaptation, which is based on the shooting script, doesn't leave anything in doubt. He's been shot several times, prompting Ursus to ask how he keeps going, but he makes his way very deliberately to the bomb and pushes the button.

While they may have decided to soften that up for the actual movie, there is evidence there to support it being intentional on Taylor's part, with his despondence over Nova's death prompting him to say "I should let them all die. The gorillas...every damn one of them. It's time this was finished."

Beyond that, the way his final moments are staged in the film, it sure looks like he made the choice to fall on the mechanism, as opposed to simply rolling over and dying That's the reading that makes the most sense for me given the way it's presented. Plus, Taylor's just that much of a bastard. :-p

cease ill said... I was wondering if this was some of your source material? I was looking around to see if this was a DVD extra. It's an excellent companion to thoughts on the films.

I've enjoyed the story commentary in particular, here, and your tidbits were told well (and chosen well, if you had the wealth of trivia that pops up in these videos). Look forward to seeing the new one this week! Doubt I'll be seeing any re-used sets from "Hello, Dolly."

Zaki said...

Yep, that was one, plus the docos on the blu-ray set, plus a great book called PLANET OF THE APES REVISITED by Joe Russo.

William Thompson said...

The bomb in the movie always mystified me, as to why they would have an bomb (antimatter bomb probably) powerfull enouth to destroy the earth. But now in the 21rst centry it makes sense as it could have been an astroid killer with some kind of power soarce that would last forever that would keep an containment field around the antimatter.