Film Review: “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (1970)

Since I watched Planet of the Apes in theaters recently, I’ve felt the familiar urge to revisit the other entries in the original film series. So, of course, I began with the sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, in which another astronaut, Brent (the absolutely delicious James Franciscus) crash-lands on the titular planet, only to discover (as Taylor did) that he is on Earth. In the process, he finds himself caught in the middle of a war between the apes and a race of telepathic mutants inhabiting the ruins of New York City.

While many critics find this one of the weakest entries in the series, I actually think it’s the strongest next to the original. This is due to three factors. One, the continued intractability of Dr. Zaius, who cannot see beyond his own understanding of the world and who thus inadvertently brings about its destruction. Zaius, brought to nuanced live by the late, great Maurice Evans, will always be one of my absolute favourite Apes characters. Two, General Ursus, showcasing the wonderful talents of James Gregory (and who could ever forget the incredible line, “The only good human, is a dead human!) In many ways, he represents the darker strain of ape society, the (dare I say it) almost human drive to conquer and destroy those that are different.  Three, the terrifying vision of the future of humanity amid the radioactive ruins of New York City. While they have some power, they also recognize their own fragility in the face of the brute force that the apes possess.

I always feel a pleasurable thrill of terror when I first see the ruins of New York City, as Brent wanders through its underground remains. There is something, I think, sublime about seeing the remains not only of one of the world’s greatest cities, but specifically of the bastions of man’s economic and enlightened achievements (hence the appearance of both the Stock Exchange and the NYPL). Similarly, it’s hard not to feel a mixture of horror and utter captivation when you realize that the telepaths have taken over St. Patrick’s Cathedral in order to offer their adulation to the bomb that could, literally, bring all life on Earth to an end. The fact that they have so thoroughly interwoven the most destructive weapon known to man into their religious life is one of the film’s more brilliant inventions, as is the fact that they only reveal their “inmost selves” to their “god” (though they normally wear masks and wigs to make themselves appear normally human, they reveal their mutated selves during worship).

Of course, it’s rather easy to read the telepaths as being more than slightly ridiculous in their worship of the Alpha/Omega bomb, but I personally find those scenes to be intensely, viscerally disturbing. I suspect this has to do with the fact that in this world the bomb has become indissolubly wedded to the divine, man’s ability to co-opt God’s destructive capabilities is indeed terrifying to contemplate. This is hardly surprising, especially if (as I have) you have studied the period and know that, indeed, there were many who saw in the bomb the incarnation of a divine power. The film tempers this somewhat by allowing Taylor the final triggering of the bomb, though to my eye it remains unclear whether he does it as a final thrust of revenge toward the intractable Zaius or whether it just happens to be where he falls after his fatal shooting (to my eye, it remains ambiguous).

In many ways, the vision of the world offered by Beneath is even more terrifying than its predecessor. In this world, humans occupy two equally unpalatable positions in this world:  either utterly devoid of the basic patterns of civilization or reduced to dwelling in a ruined city whose wreaked visage matches their own. There is really no hope for redemption, except for the perilous, ultimately fatal one offered by the detonation of the bomb.

Even the ending is, in its own way, bleaker than the original film. While there was at least hope that civilization and the future, even if ruled by apes, would continue (such was Dr. Zaius’ hope when he had the signs of man’s former dominance destroyed) in the first, at the end of this one we know that the entire planet has been effectively rendered a dead wasteland by the Bomb. The dreary intonation at the end, pithy and matter-of-fact, suggests that, in the end, the Earth is but an unimportant part of the universe.

Truly, a terrifying proposition.

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