Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Planet of the Apes — chronicling the epic and turbulent history of a civilization of evolutionary advanced apes – particularly the bloodline of two chimps, Zira and Cornelius – and their relationships with humankind. The franchise spawned from Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel La Planète des singes, and spans five original-series films, a theatrical remake, two television series, and a new prequel-re-boot hitting theaters August 5.
Planet of the Apes
The Installment: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
The Story: We pick up right where the previous film left off: Taylor and Nova have gone off into the Forbidden Zone on horseback and discovered the remnants of the Statue of Liberty, which is remarkably well preserved after nuclear fall-out and 2000 years of being half-submerged on the beach. Once Taylor is finished punching the sand and calling God’s wrath onto the long-dead denizens of the 20th-century, he totally chills out and he and Nova start having a good time in the Forbidden Zone. He tries to school her in speech (and presumably in the ways of non-reproductive love-making). Then during a strange fire-storm, Taylor vanishes into thin air. Meanwhile, yet another American spaceship has traveled through time and crashed onto the planet. The lone survivor is Brent (James Franciscus). Brent meets Nova. Then Brent meets the apes. The ape world has found itself in a bit of a pickle, with the gorillas, lead by General Ursus (James Gregory), itching to invade the Forbidden Zone and destroy the human menace. Brent and Nova venture into the Forbidden Zone looking for Taylor, and stumble upon a hidden civilization of subterranean humans. Unlike their mute and stupid above-ground counterparts, these humans have evolved psychic powers. They also worship a giant nuclear bomb, which they plan to use if the gorillas invade.
The saving grace of Beneath is its shockingly nihilistic ending, in which a mortally wounded Taylor sets off the super-humans’ nuke and kersplodes the entire goddamn planet. And this is after the apes have gunned down both Nova and Brent (Brent’s death is particularly rough). What makes this ending so shocking isn’t simply that Taylor sets off the bomb, but rather the context in which he sets off the bomb. There aren’t many permutations to this final scenario that would make Taylor blowing up an entire planet full of living beings feel like a necessary or heroic move, but it is rather big-balls-flauntingly impressive that 20th-Century Fox okayed an ending in which there isn’t even an attempt to make Taylor’s act feel necessary or heroic. Taylor isn’t saving anyone or anything by setting off the bomb. He isn’t fixing a problem or wronging a right. Why does Taylor blow it all up? Spite. And not just regular, ol’ spite. Really petty spite, at that. Nova dies, then he gets shot. When he gets shot he asks Dr. Zaius for help, and Dr. Zaius scoffs at the idea of helping a human. So Taylor is basically like, “Oh yeah, well fuck all y’all.” Kaboom! Then we cut to black and get what may be the most comically curt and depressing voice-over epilogue ever: “In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe, lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.”
The back story to the ending is that Charlton Heston didn’t want to do the sequel, but Fox kept throwing money at him. Finally he agreed to work for five days with the caveat that he get to destroy the planet at the end, killing off the possibility of anymore sequels (oh, Charlie, so naive). It’s an awesomely hardass move, and it resonates as such in the film itself. Shocking as it is, it fits right in with the character of Taylor. Taylor is a prick, and for all his anti-war platitudes and unfair persecutions at the hands of Dr. Zaius, in the end Taylor proves Zaius correct. Man is no good. Taylor is the anti-messiah for the apes. His arrival ultimately heralds the complete destruction of Earth. That’s a bleak and badass way to end a sequel. Whether intentional on Heston’s part or not, it is also a loaded Cold War mutually-assured-destruction metaphor.
James Gregory was always great as blowhards and he is a delight as General Ursus. He does a great job of serving as comic relief while also serving as a motivating antagonistic force. Plus his helmet is bitchin’. Though why is he named Ursus? That means “bear” in Latin. Not sure I get that one.
Nova gets points for improvement. Linda Harrison still has that confused cow-eyed look on her face most of the time, but the character itself works much better this time around. Nova seems smarter, and with Taylor out of the way she is given more to do. It also helps Harrison that James Franciscus doesn’t even have 1/3 the screen presence that Heston does, so she just inherently comes off better padding around with Brent than she did with Taylor. Overall, her acting definitely still leaves something to be desired, though it does provide some good unintentional laughs. Her facial reaction to Taylor disappearing in Act I is priceless, as is the moment when she triumphantly speaks at the end, screaming “Taylor” in a Golum-like creepy rasp. But I’ll say this for Harrison, her hair is out-of-control sexy in this film. High five, Linda. On a side note – How come I never see cosplay Nova outfits in Comic-Con photos? That should replace the overused Slave Leia.
The psychic-manipulation jail cell brawl between Taylor and Brent is good old “stage combat” style fun. And though this certainly isn’t something that “works” about the film, it is worth commending the film for so successfully covering up Roddy McDowall’s absence. Scheduling conflicts kept McDowall from being able to reprise his role, so David Watson was brought in to essentially do an impression of McDowall. The heavy make-up and use of McDowall footage from the first film in the prologue helped smooth over the transition.
What Doesn’t Work:
Beneath isn’t a terrible film if judged solely as a B sci-fi movie, where it mostly succeeds by virtue of its bugnuts qualities, but it is a major disappointment coming on the heels of the first film. Aside from the ballsy ending, the film is otherwise comprised of a lot of poor choices and forced cop-outs.
It was unfortunate that Heston had no enthusiasm for a sequel, as that ended up hurting the film in a variety of ways. First off, Beneath had half the budget of Apes, and a lion share of it went to Heston. Whereas the first film astounded with the sheer amount of great ape make-up, Beneath sadly feels cheap. The number of actors in crappy one-piece masks instead of make-up increased to the point of being unmanageable — they’re everywhere, in the foreground and even in medium shots at times. And the full-body suits Ursus and Zaius sport during a funny steam room scene look like something you can buy at any Halloween store. The amazing make-up in Apes was part of what helped us swallow the otherwise silly concept. Beneath really tests our suspension of disbelief. But… this is a film called Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Belief needed to be suspended anyway. We’re already buying that apes somehow evolved speech in a mere 2000 years (horses on the other hand are still stuck carrying humanoids). We should be able to take some jinky gorilla masks.
The true pains of Heston’s deal are felt in the story. The concept of Taylor disappearing and Nova pairing with someone else to go find him is a creative way around Heston’s short shooting schedule — certainly better than boringly killing him in Act I. But Brent shouldn’t have been in the movie. On just a basic level, the entire backstory of Brent’s mission makes no sense. It was never entirely clear exactly what Taylor’s mission was in the first film, but regardless, based on what we were told it seemed like everyone (including those on Earth) thought there was a strong possibility that the crew would return hundreds or thousands of years after they originally left Earth. Why would a rescue mission be sent out? More so, why would one be sent out mere weeks/months after Taylor and his crew left? (If Brent was following Taylor’s exact course, and he crashed so soon after Taylor crashed, that logically must mean he also left Earth not that long after Taylor.) That is a nitpick. If the rest of the film had worked great with Brent, this would simply be a funny illogicality to point out, just as there were plenty of illogicalities to point out in the first film, if one wanted to. But the rest of the film didn’t work out great with Brent.
It isn’t James Franciscus’ fault. He’s no Heston, and he at times seems like a bearded-Heston knock-off, but he’s not bad. Franciscus actually looks better standing next to Nova than Heston does (Heston looks kinda haggard and creepy next to Harrison). The problem is Brent is completely unnecessary. If Fox was passing the torch to a new character, that would make sense, but considering everyone blows up at the end everything involving Brent is a boring retread. His first scene, tending to his dying captain, recycles the conversations in Apes where our characters realize everyone they’ve ever loved is long dead. When he meets Nova we have to go through the motions of him realizing she’s a primitive human. Then we have to go through the rigamarole of him first seeing the apes. Heston first seeing the apes is one of Apes best scenes. When Brent first sees the apes and says, “My god, it’s a civilization of apes!” I had to fight off an eye roll. I realize Brent needs Zira and Cornelius to explain to him what the fuck is going on, but we don’t need to hear the details again. And when Brent discovers the underground remnants of New York he says, “My god, did we finally do it?” it is such an aping – boom! pun! – of Taylor’s line from Apes‘ ending that he might as well have screamed “Damn you all to hell!” to the heavens. He’s just Taylor 2.0, and though he may better fit the generic mold of a Hero better than the cynical Taylor ever did, the simple fact is that being a prick made Taylor interesting. Brent is boring. He isn’t a character we want to spend time with.
If we can’t have Taylor, we should get apes. The scenes involving General Ursus warmongering in ape city are fun, but once Brent encounters the super humans, we get very little apage, except for some blah scenes of Dr. Zaius and the gorillas in the Forbidden Zone. Ignoring the realities of where the franchise went after this film, I think Brent should have been replaced by Cornelius and Zira. Nova should have returned to them in the ape city, and the two chimps should have embarked on a secret mission to find Taylor. They should have found the super humans. The film should have focused on the ape civilization, expanding the mythology and inner-workings of the ape society. Maybe there just wasn’t the money to do that, but conceptually it makes a lot more sense to me. As is, we tread water with Brent until we finally encounter Taylor again, and the film gets interesting for its final moments. By then it is too late though.
The super humans. While the psychics and their bomb-worshiping ways are undeniably good batshit b-movie antics, they simply don’t work for me on the serious level Apes did. Why do they wear fake faces? That’s just cheap weirdness. In his Beneath the Planet of the Apes commentary on Trailers From Hell, John Landis relates a story of seeing the original designs for the super humans’ true faces, which he claims were so disgusting it made you want to puke. Sadly, Fox rejected those designs. As is they’re just kinda veiny in a boring way. Their whole civilization is too sci-fi goofy, turning the film into the kind of film people assumed the first film would be, but wasn’t. They feel like characters from Lost in Space or the original run of Star Trek. This vibe is particularly strong in the super humans’ first scene, in which none of them speak, forcing Franciscus to awkwardly phrase everything he says so as to recap what they’ve just said to him, as though he were performing a classic Bob Newhart telephone comedy routine. The idea of individuals worshiping a nuke is solid, but there must have been a better way to work that concept in — something more allegorical, maybe with the apes finding a nuke and then, Animal Farm-style, becoming the very monsters they originally stood against. I don’t know. Something different. I just wanted more apes, dammit.
Dorkiest Political Allegory Moment: The chimps partaking in a Vietnam-style protest as General Ursus and the gorillas head to war.
Zoological Faux Pas: Zira is always going on and on about how violent and brutish the gorillas are. In reality gorillas are the gentle giants of the ape world. Chimps are the assholes, and have been documented committing acts of war against neighboring communities of chimps. Gorillas will usually leave an area if they hear chimpanzees, much in the same way you might leave a bar if you spot that drunk asshole who is always picking fights.
Best Jackass Heston Line: After Nova dies. “Well, that tears it. Maybe we should just let the world blow up.”
Best Inverted Reality Line: General Ursus: “The only good human is a dead human.”
Awkward Inter-Species Moment: Zira thinking that Brent is Taylor. Oh, what? All humans look alike, Zira?
Fucked Up Ending: Already described. Taylor is all, “Zaius, help me, bro!” And then Zaius is all, “Help a human? But you’re so inferior and evil!” And so Taylor is all, “You bloody bastard.” Then he blows it all to shit. His final line should’ve been, “I finally really did it. I’m a maniac! I blew it up! Ah, damn me! God damn me to hell!”
Should There Have Been a Sequel: No. This one wasn’t very good and every character is now dead… or are they?!
Up Next: Escape From the Planet of the Apes