Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Frank Review of "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" (1970)

The Short Version? I too am an astronaut stranded alone on a planet run by apes!
What Is It? Science Fiction.
Who Is In It? James Franciscus, Charlton Heston, Nova, Zira, Dr. Zaius, a recast Cornelius
Should I See It? No.

The original Planet of the Apes was a brilliant blend of sci-fi and social satire. Beneath was its first sequel, and to some extent, its first remake. The film so slavishly tries to recreate and retread the same ground as its predecessor, while so completely failing to understand what worked in the first place, you'd think Tim Burton directed it as a boy. In fact, Burton's awful remake of 2001 resembles Beneath as much if not more than the 1968 version, a damning association for both parties.

The film opens with an abbreviated version of the first film's final minutes, then extends the action. The timelost and stranded astronaut Taylor (Heston) has learned this planet of intelligent apes out to kill him was in fact his home all along, terrifically altered by nuclear holocaust. He escapes capture with his mute native love interest Nova (Linda Harrison) into the desolate Forbidden Zone, where the pair are subjected to special effects that were crude and obvious even for their time. Meanwhile, another astronaut, Brent (Franciscus,) crash landed while on a mission in search of Taylor's missing exploratory party. Taylor's now missing-er, and Nova's still dumb, so she guides Brent through a Cliff's Notes version of Taylor's journey in the seminal Planet. By design, Franciscus was a younger, tighter, prettier, and stupider version of Heston's Taylor, which extends to the production itself. After Brent's had all the obligatory run-ins with all the major characters Taylor faced, and goes through most of the same paces, he picks up where Taylor left off in the Forbidden Zone. This is accomplished through as many contrivances as possible. Finally, Brent locates Taylor, and the pair band together against the damned dirty apes and the new menace of telepathic mutated humans. Things do not go well for anyone involved, especially the audience.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes was among the first creatively bankrupt cash-in summer blockbuster sequels, and is a particularly rank example of the genre. Charlton Heston pretty much appeared in his cameo as a favor to the producer, with the stipulation he would never do so again. James Franciscus does his best to recreate Heston's performance style, but the script gives him nothing meaningful to work with except displaying surprisingly toned abs for the era. Kim Hunter's reprising of her role as Zira is one of the few high points in the film, while David Watson doesn't draw too much attention that he's not Roddy McDowall as Cornelius. Linda Harrison's primary role in the first film was to look exceptionally hot, but her slight acting abilities can't carry her extended screen time, and she's often shot from unflattering angles besides. Maurice Evans was once again perfect as Dr. Zaius, but James Gregory was laughably miscast as the gorilla general Ursus.

Director Franklin J. Schaffner was replaced by Ted Post, a TV veteran. The look of the movie suffered as a result-- a very pedestrian directorial style filled with small screen cliches. Most of the action and sets were right out of a low rent western, one of Post's specialties. The music by Leonard Rosenman was a pale imitation of Jerry Goldsmith, and the sound design itself was downright irritating at times. Sets were noticeably minimized, with nondescript hills and sparse greenery substituting for the forests, corn fields, cliffs and waterfalls of the first film. The production budget was about half the original's, so everything was lower rent, including award-winning ape make-up often replaced with cheap pull-over masks and generic gorilla suits. A scene of a sauna involving a "nude" Dr. Zaius and General Ursus was ill-considered on every level for this reason.

Worst of all, Paul Dehn and Mort Abrahams' screenplay takes all the clever and insightful social commentary of Planet and regurgitates it in the most ham-fisted manner possible. With its chimpanzee conscientious objectors and its church of nuke-worshiping mutants, they try for Dr. Strangelove and hit What's Up, Tiger Lily? instead. The script turns left at every right, plot holes abound, and motivation is slight. The screenplay should be used as a teaching aid on what not to do in the field.

This whole debacle is the very definition of ridiculous. Just to be sure though, Charlton Heston turns in one of the hammiest performances of his career as part of the surprisingly grim and violent finale-- right up to one of the silliest, most self-important anti-climaxes in science fiction history. Of sole consolation is that the closing bloodbath insures all the guilty parties an appropriately brutal demise.

1 comment:

wiec? said...

i'm of two minds with this film. when i was a kid the Apes movies were on regular TV all the time. while the original is a classic (and all parties responsible for the 'remake' should be burned at the stake) the glory is never quite recaptured in most of the sequels. except the one were Zira and Corn go back in time and the one with Ricardo Montalban coming the closest to being watchable in my mind.

that said this one goes from bad to great back to bad again and always has for me. a lot of it is awful but that funny/ sucky kind off good/ awful. the scenes where it is so obvious that the extra apes on set are wearing Halloween masks is straight up funny. even as an 8 yr old i remember thinking what the hell?

that said i think Ursus was always my fav ape. i guess it's the helmut and the not listening to Zaius that did it. he's such a dummy. and the peely skinned mind readers always made me laugh too.

the dread sauna scene you touched on had a lot of ick factor too. how bad did those 2 guys piss the director off? he makes them wear f'ed up full body monkey costumes and puts them in full make up under hot production lights in the middle of a sweat lodge. shit is so dumb it's brilliant.


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