You can’t talk about Beneath the Planet of the Apes without discussing how it ends, so…
MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW
I was a kid the last time I saw the second Planet of the Apes movie and all I remembered of it was the very end. And hating it. I mean, why would you create a world as cool as this just to blow it up? Re-watching it this past week, I realized that there’s a lot more to the movie than just that, but I’m still kind of miffed at them.
The movie starts exactly where Planet of the Apes left off, even replaying the last few minutes of the first film. Taylor (Charlton Heston) argues with Dr. Zaius, takes off into the Forbidden Zone, discovers the Statue of Liberty, and pounds the beach with his fists while damning you all to hell. The real movie then begins with Taylor’s getting control of himself and setting off deeper into the Forbidden Zone on horseback with Nova.
Cut to a second spaceship, exactly like Taylor’s in design, but crashed on dry land instead of a huge lake like in the first movie. There are two survivors of the crash, but one of them – the captain – isn’t going to make it. He lives just long enough to share some exposition with the other survivor, John Brent (James Franciscus) and we learn that they’ve come searching for Taylor.
This makes no sense, by the way. Taylor’s mission was supposed to last hundreds of years. The crew of that ship knew that they’d be returning to Earth long after everyone they knew was dead. There’s no reason that Earth would send a second ship into space for the specific purpose of finding Taylor’s ship, because no one alive when Taylor left would ever realize that anything went wrong. Unless maybe Earth found an error in their calculations after Taylor left and figured out that he wouldn’t be able to return as expected. But even then, what would sending Brent to Taylor with this information accomplish?
Brent wanders the wilderness until he finally meets Nova, alone on horseback, but wearing Taylor’s dog tags. The rest of the story is a combination of Brent’s search for Taylor and of course trying to survive. More on the survival aspect in a minute; first I want to talk about Brent and the idea of replacing Taylor for the majority of the movie. This may have been another reason I didn’t care for the movie back in the day. Charton Heston may chew the scenery in Planet of the Apes, but those over-the-top moments are part of what makes that film so memorable. Coming into the sequel and expecting more of that, only to have Heston disappear for most of the film, can be disappointing.
As an adult though, I appreciated Franciscus’ restraint a lot. And I appreciated discovering the apes’ world again through his more realistic eyes. When he sees the gorillas whip themselves into frenzy in preparation for war on all humans, Brent proclaims the planet to be a “nightmare world.” And because of the understated way that Franciscus delivers the line, I realized that it is. When Taylor makes a similar comment in Planet of the Apes, it’s just Taylor being Taylor: all melodramatic.
To be fair, the writing is also working in Franciscus’ favor. Taylor calls the planet a “madhouse,” which is less powerful than “nightmare.” Franciscus can do more with his word without having to sell it the way Heston tries to.
Brent eventually gets the lay of the land, thanks to Nova’s taking him to see Zira and Cornelius. (Kim Hunter plays Zira again, but David Watson plays Cornelius this time instead of Roddy McDowall. Honestly though, I didn’t notice the change until I read the credits.) By then, Brent just wants to find Taylor, the only other human he has a chance of communicating with, though – like Taylor – he’s becoming awfully fond of Nova. The mute cave girl also wants to find Taylor, so the next part of the movie involves Brent and Nova’s heading into the Forbidden Zone to search for him. There are some cool ape encounters along the way, including an imprisonment and escape, and it occurred to me that this was the kind of Planet of the Apes movie I wanted to watch. Apes vs. humans with each trying to outsmart or overpower the other. Endless possibilities there.
Another thing I loved from Beneath the Planet of the Apes is General Ursus and the whole sub-plot about the gorillas’ invasion of the Forbidden Zone. Thanks to events in the previous movie, the Forbidden Zone is now seen as a threat and not just a place to be avoided. If there are other intelligent humans like Taylor there, then all of ape culture is at risk.
Ursus has a great look and is an excellent villain in a way that Zaius can’t be. Zaius accompanies Ursus on the invasion as a representative of the theocracy’s approval, but he repeats his role from Planet of the Apes as an authority figure who isn’t completely comfortable with his power. His presence makes both movies smarter, but it’s nice to have a simple bad guy like Ursus to hate without question.
Beneath also simplifies – or better explains, anyway – the apes’ culture. The caste system is clarified and it’s revealed that chimpanzees are beneath orangutans simply because there are less of them. In other words, they’re a minority. Officially, gorillas are also beneath orangutans because they’re not as smart, but there are lots of them and they’re strong, so they’ve bullied their way into some influence.
The movie also further develops the revelation from the end of Planet of the Apes that high-ranking primates know that humans used to have a civilization before apes became dominant. In fact, ape civilization is a direct response to everything that went wrong with the humans’. The Lawgiver – mentioned briefly in Planet of the Apes, but given more importance in Beneath – tried to create a utopian culture for his people and succeeded to an extent. But old ideas like prejudice and war have begun to creep in and the apes have no one to blame but themselves.
That’s why the end of the movie is still so frustrating. Planet of the Apes was awesome, but some of the adventure got lost beneath its desire to Say Something Important. Beneath finds a great balance between excitement and social commentary and there’s no reason that couldn’t have been repeated for countless sequels. Unfortunately, it throws that balance away for its final act.
On the run from a group of apes who are scouting the Forbidden Zone for Ursus, Brent and Nova discover a series of underground caves. Inside, Brent (and the audience) recognizes the architecture of New York City, fused with the rock walls. There are subways, the New York City Public Library, and Grand Central Station. It’s here that they find Taylor and join him as prisoners of a race of telepathic, mutant humans who survived the nuclear war that wiped out the rest of us. Victor Buono (King Tut from the Adam West Batman series) plays one of them, so that’s cool, but it’s also here that the movie takes a deep dive into Message and never resurfaces.
The mutants worship a still-functioning Doomsday Bomb that has the power to burn off Earth’s entire atmosphere and leave the planet completely dead. I can appreciate the metaphor. There’s an easily understood point of view that the governments that grew nuclear arsenals during the Cold War could be seen as inhuman worshipers of a technology that – improperly understood by its devotees – could destroy the world.
A big problem with the way this plays out is that – much like this post – it’s over-long. When Brent first meets the telepaths, the film insists on having them communicate directly into his brain without allowing us to hear what they’re saying. That leaves Franciscus to carry both sides of a long, expositional conversation as he figures out who they are and what they’re up to. The mutants do eventually switch to spoken word, but by then I was already bored and frustrated with them.
That aside, if the movie has to end with a serious message, it’s picked an interesting one. The mutants are indeed horrible and ruthless and no less nightmarish than the apes who have arrived in the Forbidden Zone and are even now invading the caves. As Brent, Taylor, and Nova try to escape and defuse the bomb that the mutants have unwisely activated, Nova is shot and killed. That enrages the two men and strengthens their resolve, but they’re severely outnumbered and both are fatally wounded. However, Taylor is close to the bomb’s controls when he falls and – rather than continue trying to defuse the weapon – decides to complete its activation sequence and destroy the world.
My first reaction was, “What the hell?!”, but from a character perspective, it makes perfect sense. Taylor was well-established in the first movie as a misanthrope. He has no reason to love apes any more than he does people and none of the dumb, brutish people he’s met here are worth saving anyway. Except for Nova maybe, but she’s dead.
Sidebar: I wonder if Taylor loved Nova. He has a brief soliloquy in Planet of the Apes in which he thinks about love and how he’s never really loved a woman before, but he doesn’t come right out and say that he loves her. Other than her being hot, there’s really not much to her. She’s loyal, but in the same way that a pet is. In fact, that’s a really good comparison. In both films, Nova is much more a pet than a romantic partner. Is that intentional commentary or a sexist blind-spot like we were talking about before?
Do you think Taylor would have still destroyed the planet if Nova was alive? I mean, obviously the writers wouldn’t have let him, but from a character perspective – everything else being exactly the same – I wonder if she would have been enough to keep his hand off the button. Probably not. He'd probably think he was doing her a favor by blowing her up too.
So I buy that Taylor blows it up. As Brent said, the place is a nightmare world. It’s now killed both Brent and Taylor, so why wouldn’t he blow it up? Just get rid of it. That’s a Taylor thing to do.
Oh, wait. What about Zira and Cornelius? They’re his friends, right? It’s coming back to me now that when I was a kid and wasn’t thinking so hard about what the films were saying about humanity, I really liked Zira and Cornelius. I wasn’t nearly as upset about lost potential for future stories as I was that Taylor killed two characters I liked who were supposed to be his friends.
Now though, I’m still thinking about Taylor and that soliloquy about love. I bet Taylor didn’t have any friends on old Earth. Not real ones. I bet he doesn’t think of Zira and Cornelius as real friends either, “I’d like to kiss you, Doctor” or not. Sure, if they were in the room with him, he’d probably think twice about killing them, but they’re not and I bet Taylor’s just the kind of selfish bastard who wasn’t even thinking about them as he’s angrily blowing up the world. I bet his misanthropy is based on an inability to connect with other people: ape or human.
I kind of hate Taylor at the end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, but I get him and understand why he does what he does. And from a Message-standpoint, his distance from humanity makes him the perfect commentator on what the world has become. He’s not completely human himself, so he’s not invested in either side of the ape-human conflict. He’s able to stand back and realize that both groups – humans first; then apes – have created a world that’s not worth saving. And if they can create that kind of world, then so can we. That’s a message worth hearing.