Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
“You don’t understand, Mr. Brent… the bomb is a holy weapon of peace.”
It may not have anywhere near the inspired directing of that iconic opening film in the series just two years before (I love the quick slightly disorienting zooms and wide panoramic shots from the original) and the cats out of the bag as far as ‘discovering a post-nuclear world full of talking apes’, yet the most disquieting offense is — who IS that actor playing Cornelius? Certainly NOT Roddy McDowell, the actor whose performance as the aforementioned ape scientist Cornelius (coded as liberal progressive, if you ignore the fact that he was performing lobotomies on humans with his wife Zira) and then his much more violently revolutionary (yet still entirely sympathetic) son Caesar in the last two instalments, was the emotional anchor and lynchpin of the entire five film series! I don’t know what the producers thought, but clearly – as they smartly brought him back for part 3 and the rest — they discovered you can’t just dress up any no-name actor in the makeup and think you’re going to get instant performance. No, the film really misses the presence of the distinctly voiced, theatrically flaming McDowell… with the third entry, ‘Escape’, benefiting greatly upon his return.
The film itself is exciting enough and while James Franciscus may be distractingly and obviously a lesser version of the far more powerful Charlton Heston from the first (and that goes from acting skills to physical presence), he still manages to be an engaging enough of a performer (and we get a brief but great return from Chuck anyway!). Nova’s still there as the mute female play thing for our all-American white boys and she remains a captivating figure to look at. The impressive decrepit post-war NY landmarks and backdrops, like the Queensboro Plaza subway station, may not resonate as powerfully as that incredible final image of the original film with its destroyed iconic symbol of New York, yet are definitely impressive constructions in their own right. There is also a raised level of violence from the first one in this second film that’s pretty startling (I have no idea how this film was Rated G upon its release!) and fits perfectly within the brutal milieu.
And I just love this particular post-apocalyptic film’s version of nihilistic radicalism risen from the ashes of war – namely, those wonderful, insane, zealous underground mutant people and their telepathic abilities (“Mr. Taylor, Mr. Brent, we are a peaceful people. We don’t kill our enemies. We get our enemies to kill each other.”) as they worship the atomic bomb…
While the middling journeyman director Ted Post and his producers may have openly disliked the downbeat ending of ‘Beneath’, and it may not be as burned into our shared consciousness as that from the original (“You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!’), I don’t know what they’re problem is, as it remains memorably chilling and daring, with a powerfully chosen (and bloody) closing image.