While this is technically a sequel to the original Planet of the Apes, it’s probably best described as a half-assed remake. This film basically recycles most of the macro-plot elements of the first film, only without much of the same wit, subtlety or substance.
Charleton Heston had the good sense to want to stay far away from this movie and only agreed to appear when the producers acceded to his request to kill his character and end the film in such a way to preclude any further sequels.
This movie begins with the last few minutes of Planet of the Apes, which is a bad move because it draws attention to fact that Roddy McDowall is not playing Cornelius this time around. David Watson does what he can with a nothing cameo, but McDowall is definitely missed.
In this version, another spacecraft from Earth has crashed, this one carrying Brent (James Franciscus), another astronaut stamped from the same mold as Heston’s Taylor, only without the misanthropy that actually made Taylor interesting. Another astronaut was aboard, but he dies soon after fulfilling his role in the film, which is to let Brent deliver all of his exposition without talking to himself.
Brent then encounters Nova (Linda Harrison), Taylor’s babelicious companion from the original1. Taylor’s gone missing, but since she’s wearing his dog tags, Brent asks her to take him to the first astronaut. Instead, she takes him back to Ape City for no discernable reason, other than to get Brent captured so the sympathetic chimps Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius can rescue him and Nova in a virtual replay of the original.
As we rejoin the apes, a gorilla leader named Ursus (James Gregory) is planning an offensive into the so-called “Forbidden Zone,” in search of some Lebensraum for the apes and to pursue his “final solution” against the primitive humans. As you might have guess, the allegorical elements of Beneath are less than subtle. The intellectual chimpanzees oppose the war in a manner not unfamiliar to hippies of the era and the orangutan political leaders stand impotently by while Ursus steamrolls them into war.
Once Brent and Nova reach the Forbidden Zone, he discovers the nuked remnant of New York City. He has his “damn you all to hell” moment earlier in the narrative so he can discover that the Big Nuclear Apple is not deserted, but populated by a race of telepathic humans who worship an atom bomb as their “god of peace.” Remember what I said about this installment not being very subtle?
The central problem for this film is not simply that TV actor James Franciscus isn’t equal to film icon Heston, but that his role is completely passive. Brent doesn’t do anything of his own accord, but is lead around by the short and curlies for the entire movie. And we’ll try to ignore the fact that his reason for being on the Planet of the Apes makes absolutely no sense in light of the original film.
One curiosity of this film is how all of the mutant characters are named for their dominant physical characteristic, thus you have Victor Buono playing “Fat Man” and Don Pedro Colley playing “Negro.” That’s right; the only black character in the whole film is credited only as “Negro.” This is just symptomatic of how this movie is a dated creation of its time when the original film remains somewhat timeless.
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