As a kid, I favored BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970), the second film in the original PLANET OF THE APES series, and it was clearly my favorite of the five APES movies.
I appreciated its fast pace, its frequent action scenes, and its incredibly exciting ending. However, over the years, my opinion on this one has changed, and I don’t hold it in as high regard as I once did.
But wait! A review of BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, a science fiction movie, in a column on horror movies? Well, I….as do most of you…have a broad definition of horror, and a film in which the entire world is blown to bits by a doomsday nuclear bomb, well, that’s horrific enough for me!
This first sequel to the original PLANET OF THE APES (1968) was originally going to follow the further adventures of astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston), but Heston wasn’t interested in the project, as by rule, he said he simply didn’t make sequels. However, he eventually agreed to reprise his role as long as it was brief (he made himself available for two weeks) and that they killed off the character. He also donated his salary for this one to charity.
And so the plot instead follows a second astronaut who crash lands on the planet, Brent (James Franciscus). While Fransciscus is very good in the lead role, the plot point of a second astronaut crash landing on Earth in the future at the same point in time as Taylor, I’ve always found difficult to swallow.
Anyway, Brent soon meets up with the mute Nova (Linda Harrison), who leads him back to Ape City where he meets Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (David Watson) who help him with his search to find Taylor. Meanwhile, the apes are being led by the militant General Ursus (James Gregory) who is intent on leading the apes into war against a mysterious unknown enemy lurking in the forbidden zone. Minister of Science Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) while not on board with Ursus’ militant methods, agrees the enemy in the forbidden zone must be confronted, as he believes it to be the tribe of dangerous humans from which Taylor had emerged.
Of course, Brent’s search for Taylor also leads him to the forbidden zone into the bizarre world lurking beneath the planet of the apes, where he engages in a direct confrontation with the inhabitants living there, setting up the stage for an all out action-packed conclusion as the apes attack the city just as Brent finds Taylor.
BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES has a lot of things going for it. Unfortunately, it has just as many things working against it.
For the most part, its story is a good one, as the screenplay by Paul Dehn, who would go on to write the rest of the movies in the APES series, is solid and tells an exciting tale as it follows Brent’s attempts to stay one step ahead of the apes as he searches for Taylor. And the social commentary also works, as we witness chimpanzees protesting against the militant gorillas, scenes which at the time mirrored the protests against the Vietnam war. Of course, here in 2020, the protests still have relevance.
However, as good as the script is, the screenplay for the first movie was written by Oscar winning screenwriter Michael Wilson and Rod Serling. There’s simply no comparison.
The original film has one of the most memorable and iconic endings of any science fiction movie… heck, any movie period!… ever! It seems this was inside the heads of the makers of the sequel, as they seemed to want to one-up the original ending and came up with the shocker of blowing up the world and killing everyone off.
As much as I used to like this ending, today it’s my least favorite part of the movie. It just doesn’t fit with the thought-provoking feel of the original film, and sadly sets the stage for the rest of the series which seemed intent on containing dark, violent, and tragic endings.
The budget for BENEAT THE PLANET OF THE APES was half the budget of the original film, and it shows. Most of the apes in the background in this one wear masks rather than John Chambers’ Oscar-winning make-up, used here for only the major ape characters.
Still, director Ted Post makes the most of what he had, and this one remains fast-paced and exciting throughout. It just doesn’t possess the same awe and otherworldly feel as the first film did.
James Franciscus is very good as Brent, although strangely he seems to be doing his best Charlton Heston impersonation. Evidently, Franciscus was very serious on set and hoped this film would be a major breakout role for him, which ultimately it was not. There are also stories of Fransciscus and Charlton Heston being very competitive during the shoot, and supposedly there was some genuine antagonism during their famous fight scene.
Kim Hunter returns as Zira, but her screen time is greatly reduced here in the sequel. Also, Roddy McDowall was unable to return as Cornelius in this movie, since he was committed to another project, and he is sorely missed here. David Watson plays Cornelius, and he’s simply nowhere near as good as McDowall.
Maurice Evans does get lots of screen time as Dr. Zaius, and James Gregory delivers a scene-stealing performance as General Ursus.
Linda Harrison also gets more screen time as the mute Nova, and her death, shot dead by a gorilla, marks the point in the movie where for me it all begins to unravel and go downhill.
Charlton Heston is fine once again as Taylor, but he is not in this one much at all, since he wasn’t interested in the project.
BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES does contain one of my all-time favorite lines in the series, as uttered by Ursus: “The only good human, is a dead human!”
And with its doomsday conclusion, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES should have ended the series, but thanks to the imaginative minds of writers, there emerged a third film in the series, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971).
But that’s a story for another column.
Books by Michael Arruda:
DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.
Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, first short story collection by Michael Arruda.
Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!