Thursday 26 September 2013

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

This sequel to 1968's sci-fi classic 'Planet of the Apes' spends its first half telling the same story again with a different astronaut, but in the second half moves unexpectedly to an underground realm of skinless psychics who sing hymns to a gigantic bomb.

Like the earlier film, it starts eerily, with wide empty spaces, perils of nature and troubling mysteries even before we reach the Apes.  Here, too, there's a lengthy sequence where our hero isn't permitted to speak, but must nonetheless get things done - it's always good, in this visual medium, to have a respite from talking.  We then get the same exposition and capture-and-escape antics as last time, before the new mystery and fresh ideas are allowed to take hold.

The Apes look pretty good here, riding to war.  When they get there their
lack of numbers and weapons makes the conflict seem terribly small-scale.
It isn't very clear why they go to war, nor who they expect to fight.
Charlton Heston has opted out, so his character, Taylor, is written out at the start (once we've seen a reprise of the earlier film's famous ending) and only returns in the dying minutes, to have an excellently exciting mace fight with this film's Taylor-substitute, Brent (James Franciscus).  There's a rare thrill to seeing the hero of a film you're watching fight to the death with the hero of an earlier, better movie.  We're torn over which we want to win, or we're meant to be.  Brent has the advantage that we've spent an hour getting to like him, but Charlton Heston is Charlton Heston, and though he fights the more savagely, he seems the more original of the two.  Perhaps if Brent hadn't been so clearly a Heston-lite it would seem a fairer competition.

Charlton Heston turns up, eventually.
There was a brief period when the outlandish bomb-worship and the film's excessively destructive climax made this my favourite of the five classic Apes movies.  I came round, in the end, to the greater merits of the '68 original, but think I would claim the third film, 'Escape from the Planet of the Apes' (1971) as the best of the bunch, a weird fish-out of water comedy in modern-day America which very slowly darkens into a bleak and unfair tragedy, its villain genuinely trying to save humanity, and its dearth of Charlton Heston made up for by the presence of Ricardo Montalban.

They're appealing films, each one more utterly miserable in its findings than the one before.  The first is about how human appetite for destruction never ceases, the second about how we cause the end of the world, and it somehow gets even worse as the series goes on, with films about killing babies and smashing people's heads in as borderline-legitimate ways to make the world better.  The movies have the most paranoid soundtracks, an alarming and unusual set of noises for an orchestra, at the time - and they're attractive to look upon.  I always envy Taylor's linen mace-fighting jacket in this instalment, and if I hadn't broken my sewing machine I would  surely have replicated some of the Apes' garments by now, pleasing designs which look like no human culture I could name.

This is probably the only Apes movie where you could take the Apes out
and the plot would still more-or-less work.  Nice costumes, though.
The things that most date the film to 1970 (or more properly to the late sixties when it was written and filmed) are the use of wild camera zooms and the fact that the only notable African American character is simply credited as 'Negro', which any later would surely have seemed questionable.  The film is also quite Vietnam-flavoured, with the Gorillas going into battle, but first breaking up ineffectual anti-war protests by the Chimpanzees.  On the day I viewed this film I went along to an unfortunately unpeopled anti-fascist rally, so I was rather relieved to see this film present an even smaller and less effective protest by which I could make some happier comparison.

P.S. Brent spends the film looking for Taylor, but never expresses an interest in the three astronauts who travelled with him.  Presumably he knows which of the four was played by Charlton Heston.

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