In many ways Planet Of The Apes has the perfect ending. While Charlton Heston’s flinty astronaut bellows his impotent rage at the revelation that the world infested with intelligent apes he’s found himself on has actually been a decimated future Earth all along, we get a wonderful sense if the worst kind of closure: answers that solve the question and precious little else. As we left Taylor kneeling before a ravaged Statue Of Liberty lamenting that the civilisation he left behind 2000 years ago are a massive bag of dicks we are left with a magnificent weight of finality that only a great twist ending can provide; after all… how the fuck do you follow that?
Short answer? You shouldn’t; but that’s never really been an answer Hollywood has been satisfied with so two years later along came Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, a cash-in that’s less a fiercely intelligent allegory of the nature of mankind and more an overzealous dollop of sci-fi pulp that throws in everything but the kitchen sink.
We catch up with Taylor (Heston again, book-ending the movie with an appearance that screams contractual obligation) as he pulls himself together after his earth shattering discovery and heads further into the forbidden zone to see if he can find more answers or at least something less revealing than that fucking loin cloth he’s been wearing. As he trots along with his mute “mate” Nova they are bombarded with visions of a wall of flame, violent lightning strikes and terrible earthquakes but as Heston has seen all this shit before thanks to once playing Moses, Taylor sends Nova away for help before passing through an illusion of solid rock.
Elsewhere, another craft from the past has crash landed on this future Earth (crashing time displaced spacecraft are like buses apparently – you wait 2000 years and two come at once) yielding a sole survivor, Brent, who must feel pretty silly considering his mission was to locate and save Taylor… Adding to this cascade of cosmic coincidences is that the first person Brent comes in contact with is Nova who happens to be wearing Taylor’s dogtags and so the two join forces as Nova continues on her way to get help from primate scientist Dr. Zira.
But wait, I hear you cry, I thought this movie had the words Planet Of The Apes in the title, what’s going on there?
Well I’m glad you asked as the Apes seem to have expansion on their minds and the over confident and headstrong General Ursus has riled his fellow gorilla soldiers up to march into the Forbidden Zone to forcibly reclaim more land for Apekind despite the scientist chimpanzees and politician orangutans arguing that that might not be the best idea. Chief Defender Of The Faith and all round curmudgeon Dr. Zaius reluctantly sides with the general and chooses to go along with the military expedition while chief among the opposition are Dr. Zira and her husband Cornelius. Their attention is drawn elsewhere, however, when Brent and Nova turn up looking for assistance and the two humand go through sped up version of what Taylor experienced in the first movie when they are briefly captured. Finally escaping and heading into the Forbidden Zone themselves, the two instantly stumble on a terrible (and astronomically far fetched) secret: a race of mutant, telepathic, subterranean humans living in the ruins of what used to be New York who worship an unexploded atom bomb as their God. While we struggle to grasp this extreme handbrake turn of a plot point, Brent manages to find an imprisoned Taylor while Ursus’ gorilla army ALSO manages to somehow easily discover the poorly hidden race of pasty faced bomb bashers and so a frenzied scuffle breaks out between mutant, man and ape where the fate of the world will clumsily be decided in a shock climax that guaranteed to bum the audience the fuck out.
What BTPOTA lacks in the remarkable subtlety and substance displayed in the timeless original, it works over time to make up the difference by simply being crazier than a shithouse rat. So many aspects of the film seem randomly lashed together in a desperate attempt to make things work that it wilfully seems to not give a literal monkey’s uncle if any of it it makes a lick of sense.
Take Charlton Heston’s greatly reduced role for example: the story goes that the legendary actor was hardly thrilled to be asked to return and only did so on two conditions; the first being that his fee be donated to charity and the second was that the producers make damn sure Taylor wasn’t going to make any further appearances. This understandably leaves the door open for a new protagonist but it doesn’t explain why the filmmakers made the bizarre choice of casting a man (TV actor James Franciscus) who acts, sounds and looks suspiciously like Heston himself to the point that even Dr. Zira confuses them.
While the movie attempts more socially conscious issues in an attempt to appear as smart as it’s predecessor, it actually doesn’t amount to much more than recreating political things from recent history and putting a monkey suit on them. For example we get a crowd of chimps openly protesting against Ursus’ “holy war” complete with signs (written in english) who are only peaceably removed only because Zaius urges the general not to make martyrs of them and a questionably “humorous” conversation about chimpanzee domestic violence between Zira and Cornelius; but it all feels forced, especially since the apes themselves are unwisely relegated to bit players in their own movie.
This is mainly because the industrial levels of weird the film heaps upon you without warning in it’s second half which ranks as absurdly kitsch, overwhelmingly silly and yet somehow compulsively watchable all at the same time. The mutant human bomb cult (not their real title but definitely a kickass name for a metal band) swan around in suspiciously clean looking robes and wear Mission: Impossible style rubber masks to hide the fact that actually look like skinless Uncle Frank from Hellraiser fighting off a bout of queasy seasickness, while they force the heroes to fight via mind control like a second hand episode of Star Trek. They also manage to highjack the entire movie and send it on an unstoppable spiral towards Beneath The Planet Of The Apes’ astoundingly downbeat and rather poorly executed ending which sees almost all the players engaging in an almost farcical shootout while the fate of the characters, the world and the entire franchise is at risk. With such massive stakes at play the film decides not so much to finish proceedings with a wind down but instead throws you out with all the delicacy of a meat necked bouncer with an attitude problem.
And yet, despite driving the magnificent central premise into the ground with the literal force of a 10 megaton device, it’s still a fascinating world to visit – even if we have to witness the sight of Zaius and Ursus discussing plans while nude in a sauna proving that not even two guys in damp, baggy, matted gorilla costumes can truly scupper a great concept.
Watchable, even if only just to see what happens next, this is mostly a case of monkey see, monkey don’t.