1970, US, Directed by Ted Post
Colour, Running Time: 91 minutes
Review Source: DVD, R2, Fox; Video: Anamorphic 2.35:1, Audio: Dolby 2.0
After Taylor and Nova set off towards the Forbidden Zone at the end of Planet of the Apes they encounter a series of strange phenomenon in the desert that results in Taylor’s unexplained disappearance. Navigating the same interstellar trajectory as Taylor another astronaut called Brent crash lands on the planet and comes across the aimlessly wandering Nova. Realising that she knows Taylor (she keeps his NASA necklace) they set off in search of the lost man, instead finding Ape City where the militant gorilla Ursus is plotting an invasion of the Forbidden Zone due to several recent missing ape reports. Brent makes contact with Cornelius and Zira and they try to help him avoid capture so he can find Taylor and figure out a way of escaping from the hostile world. After being temporarily captured he and Nova get away into the Forbidden Zone where they find a subterranean domain, Brent here learning the truth about the planet’s history and precisely why the area is referred to in such a deterring fashion. But there’s exposure to even greater danger in the underground tunnels though this time not from the apes, who have themselves already organised a huge army that marches into the area. The smell of a battle is in the air…
There is the feel of classic science fiction that pervades the original movie, something that’s partly lost here due to several avoidable flaws. James Franciscus makes a good lead as Brent - a reasonable replacement for Charlton Heston who only appears for a few minutes - and Linda Harrison’s Nova is quite stunning to look at (she’s not really heard, though does get to utter her first and only word in this film). Development of the Zaius character loses its way with an inconsistent continuation of his onscreen presence between the first two chapters - whereas he was despotic, overwhelmingly fearful that humanity would once again threaten ape, and willing to sacrifice anything for the good of the species, he is now reduced to merely supporting the destructive drive of Ursus in an almost passive manner. It seems that Ted Post knows how to compose an attractive image, making valuable use of the 2.39:1 ratio throughout, but he fails to grasp simian behaviour in the context of cinema, with some of the onscreen ape acting being quite amateurish in comparison to Franklin Schaffner’s original. It doesn’t help that Roddy McDowall couldn’t make it for Beneath… (his only absence in the whole film and TV series), his role being temporarily adopted by a poor David Watson (who?), though admittedly this man looks awkwardly cast throughout. McDowall studied chimp movement prior to the filming of the original movie and out of all the ape actors he is the most consistently convincing, plus physically distinctive and socially likeable. Watson by contrast is clumsy and skips across the room as if taking part in some sort of psychedelic pantomime. I love the Ursus character, a powerful warmonger who aptly leads a huge army into the Forbidden Zone with the sole intention of destruction - he predates Urko, the principal antagonist from the TV series, and is clothed similarly. Leonard Rosenman replaced Jerry Goldsmith as the composer and his contribution is not quite in the same class, though remains functional - Goldsmith would return to work on Escape… whilst Rosenman would return for the final film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Something that really becomes problematic also is the excessive use of masks for background apes - while the principal simian actors wore prosthetics that hold up exceptionally well considering the era, many of the lesser characters were reduced to wearing masks that were often very badly designed; god-awful in some cases. What this film does do is add to the Apes mythos in a number of ways and it’s worth noting that despite being the second outing, Beneath… is really the last in the series from a chronological point of view, each subsequent movie taking place in a time before. The race of mutant survivors that live below the surface provide a threat not just to the human visitors, but to the apes and every living thing on the planet, worshipping as they do a relic that happens to be an operational atomic bomb. It seems there is an underlying commentary on religion here: the apes claim that God made them in his own image while the mutants believe that the bomb is some sort of divine being, or representative of such. Looking at the contradictory comparisons that occur when dissecting religions that exist globally today the film’s ideas seem to be a reflection of the misinterpretations that can be made when attempting to understand our creation/formation/origins, and how people will devote themselves to such misinterpretations with no accurate and well-founded idea who, if anybody, is right. Of course I’m not claiming that there is no god (nobody has such a right given the limitations of our own understanding and perception), but the variations evident between religions indicate that somebody has to be wrong at the very least (i.e. everybody can‘t be right), and those very people are adamant that they’re right just like most of the population strangely, atheists included. Providing a few moments of tension, some interesting philosophical ideas amongst the muddle, and one of the greatest endings in cinema, Beneath the Planet of the Apes is alas not the upgrade it could have been and limitations are apparent that let it down periodically.
Having seen this for years on television and 4:3 VHS the DVD was a visual revelation, boasting a colourful and moderately detailed widescreen image that lends an epic ambience to the proceedings. Of course the transfer is a little soft, perhaps a side effect of the film’s production date but it will be intriguing to see what Blu-ray can offer a movie like this (aside from emphasising just how much of a train wreck those background masks are). Stereo audio is serviceable and extras are restricted to a few trailers and stills, though the boxed set does contain a two hour documentary as an excellent supplement.