Random Film of the Week(end): Beneath the Planet of the Apes

BtPotAI usually avoid sticking my nose into other people’s conversations, but I had to poke and sniff lightly into a heated debate this week about Alien 3 being the “only” major sci-fi movie where a main character dies in a “really dumb” manner. For starters, warts and all, there’s a pretty decent (albeit as bleak as rollerskating all the rings of hell in a day) first film in David Fincher’s often negatively discussed sequel/”finale”. I did a RFotW on that a while ago (note that link above – go read it if you’re still one of those who despises the film and maybe it will help out a bit).

And second,Ted Post’s 1970 film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes definitely did its killing off of many major characters (and an entire planet) during the last reel in an even more shocking (and some would say, “really dumb”) manner. It’s actually not a bad film at all, but by upping the shock value of the original classic by obliterating the earth it was definitely a film you didn’t walk out of the theater feeling happy and bouncy after viewing…

Then again, it would have been hard to top the original flick’s finale (I won’t spoil it if you’ve yet to see it), a Rod Serling wham to the forehead that basically turned it into an extended (and really great) Twilight Zone episode. Serling wasn’t around for the sequel other than having his story ideas turned down by 20th Century Fox, director Franklin J. Schaffner and composer Jerry Goldsmith were off doing Patton (which would be a big Academy Award winner in 1970) and initially, Charlton Heston wasn’t even in the picture. You’d think this latter fact would mean any chances of a followup were doomed, but somewhere along the line, Heston agreed to appear on the conditions that his character was killed and whatever salary he took would go to charity.

So, how do you kill off a character like Heston’s irascibly likable anti-hero/last talking man on New Earth without making the film all about him? Well, you have him disappear at the beginning into a weird special effects void and reappear much later on as a combination plot device and Deus Ex machina operator, of course. In is place, we get James Franciscus as a more likable astronaut named Brent, who gets sent after Taylor and in what must be a combination of the worst scientific “luck” in history and the only answer to “How the hell do we get him to the SAME planet?” (probably asked when the story was being written), crash lands his ship.

To keep things rolling along without too much exposition, Brent’s crew is killed in the crash (no extra story fodder there), he finds Taylor’s babe Nova on a horse and after spying Taylor’s dog tags and trying to grill her (she’s still inconveniently mute), the pair make their way to the not so friendly Ape City where Brent gets his first sight of the new order before he’s sent to the nearest doctor after a gorilla assault. Welcome home, right? Anyway, those doctors just so happen to be Zira and Cornelius, who find more of that scientific luck on their side as they’ve now seen TWO talking humans and this on just so happens to know the last one. Of course, a cheerful human/monkey reunion isn’t why we’re here, so the film takes a turn towards it’s darker side in relatively rapid time.

Performances are actually pretty good throughout, but I’d have to give James Gregory’s General Ursus a big cigar for his acting job, particularly in his big speech to the assembled apes and such. This scene is also pretty funny as it plays as such a big fat riff on the great opening to Patton (which was released a month before this film) that you’ll wonder if it was intentional or just some really awesome cosmic timing. I was going to type out the entire speech, but fortunately for you, I found a clip on YouTube that works much better:

There’s a bit of obvious social commentary about the class struggles between the assorted simians, a protest straight out of an anti-Vietnam rally (the US was still there at that time), military power being used for all the wrong reasons, an invasion into uncharted (and deadly) territory, lots of psychic mutants and their strange religion, the return of Taylor, a shootout and lots of dead apes, mutants, a few humans and finally, the whole damn planet going up in nuclear hell as a finale. I usually don’t to spoilers here, but as I said above, this isn’t supposed to be a film you walk away from smiling.That and, I haven’t revealed exactly how the film ends, as that’s one of the more surprising (and hilarious) things about it…

On the odder hand, it was rated G (General Audiences) when it was originally released (!), meaning it was seen by the studio as a family-friendly movie (!!). Considering the amount of shootings, the reveal of the horribly mutated humans after the jarring, atonal “Mass of the Holy Bomb” sequence and the general nihilistic tone of the last few minutes, this should have been a PG flick at best. As you probably know, the ending of this film actually didn’t kill the franchise at all, as we ended up with three more 1970’s films after that, a TV series, cartoon show and a few attempts at more recent revivals. I think two of those are potential RFotW candidates, as over time, they’ve revealed some interesting surprises thanks to director’s cuts and/or fresh views by yours truly.

Anyway, yeah- Lt. Ellen Ripley wasn’t the first, nor the last major character to be killed off in a big sci-fi movie. She’s just another one on the pile in the long line of films that ended it all for one or too many while audiences were squirming in their seats and leaving theaters shell-shocked or otherwise upset over. I’d say watch Beneath the Planet of the Apes on a nice sunny day like today when it’s still light out, then go out to the park and get an ice cream cone or some fruit and cheer yourself back up (or at least laugh at the funnier parts of the film)…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.