With fond memories of the initial Planet of the Apes and seeing that the only way to get all the background information was to splurge and get the complete box of the series on DVD, I began to work my way through the sequels. I also vaguely remember enjoying some of them some 30 years ago, but I had forgotten how dreadful Beneath the Planet of the Apes is.
The film's weakness is neither due to the nihilistic philosophy espoused by Charlton Heston's character, nor due to the downer ending. The entire movie just isn't any fun, outside of a few all-too-brief moments.
Much like Psycho II, the best moments occur at the beginning. It reprises the classic shocking ending of the initial Planet of the Apes with Taylor pounding the shoreline and bellowing “Damn you all to hell!” In case you’ve been away from planet Earth for the past 30 years and didn't know, Taylor is now marooned on Earth some 2000 years in the future, when evolution has taken a different turn. Homo sapiens is now the primitive animal on the scene, and apes have taken over.
After Taylor mysteriously disappears in the deserted Forbidden Zone, we pick up on John Brent (James Franciscus), who has been sent to track the wayward astronauts. This seems little more than a plot device to cover up for Heston's refusal to appear in a full starring role in future Planet of the Apes affairs. A pity, since this series has a lot more going for it than Soylent Green or The Omega Man ever did.
What we see is more retreaded material. We even have a reprise of the sacred scrolls to justify the gorillas' desire to wipe man off their planet:
Beware the beast man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him, for he is the harbinger of death.
The apes are deeply divided, with chimpanzees as pacifists, the gorillas as warlike hawks, and the orangutans as conflicted (but leaning towards wiping out man). There are a few good bits, with Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) showing her independence and hatred for the gorilla philosophy, but there are not enough of those moments here. David Watson fills in as Cornelius this time, but even under the ape suit he's not as convincing or personable as Roddy McDowall from the initial film.
Unfortunately, James Franciscus doesn’t come across with the necessary cheesiness that Charlton Heston exemplifies in the first Planet of the Apes. I felt no real connection with him as he finally descends beneath the planet into the old New York subway system and discovers it's his old neighborhood. To cover up the lack of imagination and to ensure that Franciscus doesn't have to do much, they keep using horrendous sound waves that make him look like he's having huge migraine headaches until he wants to kill someone.
I couldn’t believe how bad the screenwriting becomes underneath the planet. They actually borrow the same idea that the original Star Trek series was based on, 3 years prior to this debacle. We have a hidden society that uses mind control to create illusions for protection and to cover up their real appearance. They can communicate through mind-reading. We've seen this before; it's just surprised that the Star Trek creators didn't sue the writers, but perhaps they didn't want to be associated with this dismal film.
Well, not all is bad. There's a clever scene that pays homage to the 1960s. A group of pacifist chimpanzees circles around with protest signs demonstrating for peace, but the gorillas eventually disband the "troublemakers." And fortunately, there is Heston at the end for his cameo role. Is there a more self-righteous acting icon in the universe with such stereotypical acting technique?
Heston expresses his supreme pessimism for the human species, and he gets to fight with Franciscus. I just wish that the writers had made some kind of settlement with the Star Trek people and let them borrow William Shatner! That would make this movie a classic worth watching.
As it is, Beneath the Planet of the Apes is one huge disappointing bore. Tedious and unpleasant, and that is all before the Chuckster tries to end it all with the Alpha and Omega bomb without spending any money on special effects. Heston may have tried to end the series with this bomb, but it will continue with much more pleasant fare like Escape from the Planet of the Apes. I can't make the same claim for Heston's career.