Great Apes!: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
By Witney Seibold on July 3, 2014
In the second installment of Great Apes!, Witney will muddle through one of the weirdest sci-fi films ever made with the totally bonkers Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
A note of advice: Don’t ever watch Beneath the Planet of the Apes at 3 in the morning while you’re trying to sober up. There is no surer way to induce insanity. Beneath the Planet of the Apes, directed by Ted Post, is less reminiscent of the 1968 original, belonging more in a camp with head-trip films like Zardoz. This is Planet of the Apes via hallucinogens. Whether or not this makes the film stronger I’ll leave for you to decide.
The story is similar to that of the original, in that an astronaut from Earth (this time played by James Franciscus) flying through a time hole (?), lands on the same planet a mere year after the events of the first film. Taylor (Charlton Heston) is out trekking through the Forbidden Zone (a once-irradiated wasteland surrounding the ape country) with his mute babe girlfriend (Linda Harrison), and it’s up to Brent (Franciscus) to find out what happened to Taylor. He finds the ape society, and that is is now being quietly bullied by the local military. Brent claims that this is the year AD 3955, which is actually 23 years prior to the stated year in the previous film. Chronology, you will find, fits very loosely over this series.
The military in these films are typically led by gorillas. The intellectuals are chimps. The politicians are orangutans. Make of this what you will. Brent befriends Zira and Cornelius (Kim Hunter and David Watson) to learn about the violent General Ursus (James Gregory), who plans to invade the Forbidden Zone, assuming that people live there. He flees the ensuing invasion, treks into a deep cave, and finds an abandoned New York subway. Since the shock of learning that this planet is indeed Earth has worn off of the audience, Brent seems to take the information relatively in stride.
Hang on, ’cause this is where things start to get crazy: Brent also eventually meets an underground klatch of humans who have, it turns out, been living underground for thousands of years. Residual radiation has left them skinless and psychic, and they communicate telepathically. They can control people psychically, spy on people with a psychic screen, and worship a nuclear bomb as their deity. This is symbolism about as subtle as, well, a nuclear bomb. When the gorilla army approaches the lair of the skinless ghouls, they try to scare them off by project an illusory psychic field of fire, filled with inverted crucified apes, while a statue of the ape Lawgiver cries tears of blood. This scene resembled something Ken Russell may have done.
The climax involves an underground ape invasion and a fight with crazed psychic CHUDs. If my description isn’t conveying how bugnuts crazy this movie is, then I can only assure you that this is one of the most bizarre Hollywood films I have ever seen. It’s lousy with obvious political symbolism, some clear allusions to Vietnam, and preachy anti-war rhetoric that is undone by its admittedly wacky imagery. Beneath‘s psychedelic earnestness undoes any of the trashy monster vs. monster appeal it may have had, edging it ever closer toward camp with every passing minute. The film ends with the effing apocalypse.
I can’t say, however, that I don’t enjoy watching it. As with Zardoz, there is an infectious quality to a mind-trip of this scope and ambition. Beneath the Planet of the Apes is not a good film – its too scattered and bizarre for that – and its not particularly even watchable, but it is fascinating. At the end of the day, I recommend it.
You’ll find that all of the Apes films, for however fun they might be, typically end on a tragic note or a notable death. The pattern of humans living in an Apes society will be inverted in the next film.
Join me next time for Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971).