In 1968, science fiction broke new ground with the shocking classic Planet of the Apes. The film was a critical and financial success, so much so that executives at Twentieth Century Fox demanded something that was typically frowned upon at the time: a sequel. In part two of my seven part series delving into the world of the Planet of the Apes films, I look into just what happened when filmmakers decided to delve…
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1969)
So how do you top Planet of the Apes? That’s exactly what studio heads were trying to figure out in 1968 shortly after the first film was a hit. They shopped around to different writers, starting at the man mostly responsible for the original’s genius: Rod Serling. Although Serling came up with multiple treatments for sequels, none apparently lit the spark that executives were looking for. Going down their list they came next to the author of the original book, Pierre Boulle. Boulle’s treatment titled the film Planet of the Men and envisioned a tribe of men warring against the apes, ending in the religious orangutan leader Dr. Zaius to be put on display for the humans’ amusement. It was an interesting treatment that took the story in a different direction, focusing less on panache and instead on thoughtful themes of social class and revolution. Unfortunately it also lacked a visual shock like the original had, so Fox told him to jog on.
The plot they ended up going with was different enough from the original to make it interesting, but landed on all the right beats for a Planet of the Apes movie so that it wouldn’t deviate too far from the formula. Scruffy-looking hero crash lands on distant planet in the future? Check. Hero is hunted by intelligent apes? Check. Scantily clad Linda Harrison? Check. Shocking twist that freaks out the audience? Check. Depressing ending that teaches us something about humanity? Check. Hell, even the new hero looked just like Charlton Heston, since they had to twist his arm to even get him to play a bit role in the movie.
But somehow it pays off. Oh not in a big way by any means. More in a Jaws 2 or Psycho 2 sort of way where the original broke new ground and stands alone as a classic for the ages but the sequel works as an entertaining bit of fluff. What Beneath the Planet of the Apes has going for it in contrast to those other sequels, though, is that the people behind it are genuinely trying to make a good movie. The idea of two religious organizations warring with each other to the point of world-wide destruction was different than the original’s themes of ignorance vs reason. The omega bomb and society of mutants are different enough from the original to hold your attention for the 1.5 hour running time, and the ending is arguably more shocking, thought less thoughtful, than that of the first film.
The choice to blow the entire planet up at the end was a choice based on emotions during production, as Fox studio head Richard Zanuck was fired during production of the film and in his depressed state he told the filmmakers to end the film on that note. Heston had no objections, as he already thought the series had outstayed its welcome, and he thought that killing off the entire planet might nip the franchise in the bud. It’s a downer of an ending as we’re “treated” to shots of apes tearing into the temple of the bomb, unceremoniously shooting our hero in the head, and Heston setting off the omega bomb with his last breath. It’s a hopeless ending to a film that’s otherwise a fine popcorn muncher, and everyone involved was worried that this bold choice would turn audiences off to the film.
Somehow, it survived as the film went on to become yet another box office smash. Fox was excited, as this one had been made for half the budget of the first film, a practice that would become more and more popular as the series went on. In fact, they set designers had to get creative with Beneath the Planet of the Apes as the underground ruins of old New York demanded large-scale buildings in crumbling conditions. The secret lay in reusing sets from other films recently shot in the area and using matte paintings. They did such a great job with the underground set, in fact that the apes of the film are often sidelined for the mutant plot, and in scenes with crowds of apes the lack of detail to many of the background masks (due to budget constraints) is painfully obvious.
Is the movie any good? Not really. It poses some interesting settings (the underground sets are fascinating) and raises some interesting thoughts, but as a whole it works better as nothing more than an expansion of the world. It’s daring, but unlike some of its successors it’s not daring to the point that it breaks new ground. As the films went on, they started feeling more like episodes in a serial as opposed to properties meant to stand on their own feet. But the circular nature of the timeline they were forced to follow limited the scope of their stories to accommodate the continuity (which they mercilessly butcher anyways). In the grand scheme of things Beneath the Planet of the Apesis more entertaining and better made than any of the other sequels, but it’s not as interesting.
Speaking of sequels, how the do you continue a story where the world has been blown up…?
Joe is a short film director and film enthusiast. You can follow him on Twitter here.