At the time of Beneath the Planet of the Apes‘ release in 1970, sequels weren’t exactly a common occurrence. The general thinking among movie studios was that a sequel wouldn’t make as much money as the original and the idea of a franchise, spanning movies, books, games, soundtracks and collectibles seemed borderline absurd. This may seem strange to modern audiences seeing as of the 24 movies to gross more than 1 billion dollars at the box office, only 4 (Avatar, Titanic, Frozen and Jurassic Park) were not part of a pre-existing cinema franchise and one of them (Jurassic Park) only crossed a billion years later with a 3D rerelease. At the time though, there was no Star Wars, no Harry Potter, no Avengers. While Beneath the Planet of the Apes’ legacy is certainly no match for it’s predecessor, it does bear the distinction of kickstarting one of the very first blockbuster franchises in cinema history.
At the time of Beneath the Planet of the Apes‘ production, production house 20th Century Fox was going through severe financial difficulties after the commercial failure of several big budget films, most notably the Julie Andrews musical Star!. The production budgets for many films in development at the time were cut as a result, including Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which was also experiencing great difficulty getting key cast and crew to return for the sequel. The original movie’s director Franklin J. Schaffner was asked to return, but he was busy filming the war epic Patton (which would eventually win him an Academy Award for Best Director in 1971), resulting in his replacement by television director Ted Post while Roddy McDowell was unable to reprise his role as Cornelius due to prior commitments directing the British film Tam-Lin. Charlton Heston was also difficult to reaquire: he viewed a sequel as unnecessary, and had little interest in returning to the role of Taylor. Eventually, he agreed to be in the film provided his role be drastically reduced. He donated his salary to charity. Finally, Richard D. Zanuck, the head of production at Fox who played a key role in greenlighting the series, was facing a shareholder revolt due to perceived poor handling of the studio’s output and was eventually dismissed. He would go on to form the independent production company responsible for Jaws, but before he left Fox he gave one lasting directive to Post and his team. His instruction led to the film’s infamously nihilistic and unsatisfying ending, a final jab at the company that had taken his name off his parking spot before he’d even left the property. All in all, it was a deeply troubled development and that hardship is unfortunately reflected onscreen.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes follows new astronaut Brent played by James Franciscus, a popular television star looking to get into movies. Brent has been sent looking for Taylor for reasons never quite explained. Taylor appears to know him, which implies Brent is from the 20th century, but things only went wrong for Taylor after he went into hypersleep somewhere around 2600 earth time. We at least get an explanation as to what exactly the problem was after Brent experiences it as well: a mysterious rift in time that sent them hurtling into the far future as opposed to the more measured time travel achieved through time dilation. A sloppily tied up loose end for sure but at least it’s dealt with.
Brent quickly encounters Nova (a returning Linda Harrison) who has found herself separated from Taylor after he disappeared into an unnatural mirage in the desert. Unable to communicate with him, she takes him to the ape village from the first film to converse with Zira (a returning Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (David Watson). There, he finds the apes gearing for war, seemingly still under the impression that Taylor came from the Forbidden Zone and is therefore one of many. Led by the militaristic gorilla General Ursus (James Gregory), the apes prepare to set off into the Forbidden Zone. What they don’t know is that something very different than they think lurks deep within the wasteland and Taylor has had the misfortune of stumbling into it.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes is an extremely messy film. While it’s opening act is entertaining enough, it quickly loses itself amid an aimless stream of poorly developed plot points and obvious parallels to the Vietnam War. It’s a sloppy movie that drags a talented cast through material they’re too good for and the reduction in budget definitely shows in the terrible facial prosthetics for ape extras.
Most frustrating, however, is the fact that the movie goes nowhere. What little story there is is resolved by an extraordinarily unsatisfying final sequence that bears the dubious distinction of being one of the most explosive anti-climax’s in film history. There is no ending: Beneath the Planet of the Apes just stops.
All in all Beneath the Planet of the Apes is a spectacular disappointment. While it’s predecessor was a smart, tightly plotted exploration of the “human” condition and the dangers of nuclear war, the sequel doesn’t seem to know what it’s trying to do. It’s action sequences pale in comparison to the first film, it’s allegories are veiled as thinly as tissue paper and the plot has a deeply unsatisfying conclusion. It’s an extraordinary failure when compare to the revolutionary brilliance of the original, and it left the rest of the series in an extremely precarious plot position going forward.