Weapons of Peace: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
My history with the Planet of the Apes franchise is pretty limited. The first one I had ever seen was the brilliant Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, and then, of course, I saw its sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014. But, it was only in late 2015 that I managed to see the original 1968 Planet of the Apes. I never went back to the series for the sequels until now, with the supposedly exceptional War for the Planet of the Apes coming out soon. I blind bought the “Legacy Collection” Blu-ray set and popped in Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
Wow. I wasn’t expecting that…
Beneath the Planet of the Apes opens with a replay of Planet of the Apes’ stunning finale. Taylor (Charlton Heston, making what amounts to an extended cameo) and the mute Nova (Linda Harrison) continue their journey, but Taylor mysteriously disappears. Then the film introduces Brent (James Franciscus), an astronaut on a mission to rescue Taylor who ends up in the Forbidden Zone in the same manner as Taylor. Brent’s fellow astronaut Maddox (Tod Armstrong) dies, after realizing that his whole family is dead. Brent finds Nova and sees Taylor’s dog tags, but they cannot communicate so Nova takes him back to Ape City.
At this point, Beneath becomes a rehash of the first one, with the exciting inclusion of war monger General Ursus (James Gregory), who wants to lead an invasion into the Forbidden Zone. He delivers a monologue that is somehow both very campy and extremely terrifying. Brent and Nova meet up with the returning Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (David Watson) and escape the clutches of the apes. But then, Brent and Nova hide in a cave, which they discover to be the Queensboro Plaza subway station. (Fun fact: Queensboro Plaza is an above ground subway station; the nearby Queens Plaza is underground.)
This is the halfway point to the film, and I realized that if this movie were just a repeat of the original, this would be the ending. So I really had no idea where this movie was going. What was…beneath the planet of the apes? On an objective level, this is a pretty bad movie. The characters are thinly drawn, and up to this point, everything feels tired.
As Brent and Nova make their way through the cave and come across a mutant, telepathic human population, and my mind was blown. These sequences are bizarre and surreal. Beneath becomes almost transcendent in its B-movie badness. The mutants sing a hymn to an atom bomb, and talk about their illusory “weapons of peace.” The people don’t even realize their own cruelty. I found the film oddly relevant in today’s political climate, where people in power are quick to wash their hands of wrongdoing. Above ground, some chimpanzees protest war, and shout “gorilla brutality!” when gorillas break up the protest. Both of these instances are meant to reflect the 1960s, but sadly still feel current in 2017.
Beneath went through several rewrites and had lots of behind the scenes troubles. Charlton Heston demanded to be killed off in the beginning and was convinced to appear again in the end. The budget was cut in half, and multiple plotlines and endings were discussed. It shows in the final product. One can imagine a better version of the film. As is, however, the film is pulpy, weird, beautiful, and disturbing. Cheap movies with bad special effects have an undeniable charm.
Even though Brent is a B-grade Taylor (apparently the actor liked wearing his loincloth costume) and the returning cast seems a little bored, the movie’s own awfulness works in its favor. It’s unforgettably strange, like an especially outlandish dream. Beneath also has a sense of dread that increases as the film goes on. The ending is bleak—far more unsettling than I initially anticipated. When the film ended, I sat there in silence staring at the screen, but not reading the credits. Beneath the Planet of the Apes has a shocking, terrifying climax, but one that has me excited to watch the rest of the franchise.