Tor.com Goes Ape!

The Search for Charlton Heston: Rewatching Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Though continuity problems are not near as bad in the Planet of the Apes films as they are in the Highlander film series, both contain similar issues regarding the justification of a sequel to a film that seems to have created a definitive end to the series. Thematically, the journey of Col. George Taylor was complete in Planet of the Apes. The verdict: human beings suck. And yet, because the film was so popular, a sequel happened.

I say “happened” because not much about Beneath the Planet of the Apes feels planned. Is this sequel a complete mess? Yes, but it’s the best kind of mess, because to simply call it bonkers doesn’t begin to describe it.

At first, Beneath the Planet of the Apes feels like it is literally going to be a movie about what Taylor and Nova are going to do with themselves now that they’ve escaped from the ape village and are hanging out on the beach in the Forbidden Zone where the half-buried of Statue of Liberty taunts them silently. The last few moments of the original are the first few moments of this film, just to let you know continuity matters. Pretty quickly however, things get crazy, and continuity doesn’t so much as go out the window as it leaves for an hour-long lunch break.

Beneath the Planet of the ApesSuddenly Taylor decides he needs to go off and investigate something, and feels so strongly about this quest that he gives Nova his dog tags on the off chance that he suddenly vaporizes into thin air. Now, why Taylor knows he’s going to literally disappear into thin air, isn’t clear. Perhaps he’s read the script, because sure enough he soon vanishes into a rock face with some kind of cheesy science fiction special effect. Nova is horrified and immediately gets on her horse and rides back to the Ape village.

Meanwhile, a second spacecraft, identical to the ship from the first movie has crashed landed somewhere on the planet. (Everyone is incapable of safely landing spaceships in all the Apes movies.) Out of the wreckage comes a lone astronaut named John Brent (James Franciscus) who, physically speaking, is a poor man’s Heston. The beard, the blond hair, the blue eyes, everything. Other than maybe being a little shorter than Heston, if you’re drunk or squinting, you might actually think this guy is our Charlton Heston. So, what is this guy doing here anyway? We’re told he’s been sent on a mission from Earth to find Col. Taylor. Why the Earth actually expected a reply from this deep space mission is not clear and pretty much in direct contradiction to the first film. But whatever, Brent is here to find Taylor and sets out to do just that.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes

The search for Heston is an interesting metaphor for the craziness of Beneath the Planet of the Apes because ultimately the film is searching for its former star, and in many ways, its former soul. Oddly, the apes themselves don’t have near as large of a role in Beneath the Planet of the Apes as the humans. Poor Cornelius isn’t being played by Roddy McDowall, meaning not only do we have a faux Heston, but a faux McDowall too! Brent and Nova eventually find Zira (thankfully still Kim Hunter) and Cornelius to ask for help in the search for Taylor. Zira, just like the audience, initially mistakes Brent for Taylor for he too has “bright eyes.” Being the nice chimps that they are, Zira and Cornelius agree to help. But there’s trouble afoot! The gorillas are organizing into an army and preparing to invade the Forbidden Zone! Why would they do such a thing? Well, it turns out there’s a bunch of humans living there. Underground. And then things start to get batshit crazy.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Brent and Nova eventually find themselves underground in the Forbidden Zone, the same place where Taylor magically evaporated into at the start of the movie. And there are indeed humans living down there. And they’re not the naked savages we’re familiar with, but instead, creepy telepathic/telekinetic religious fanatics who worship a nuclear missile as a deity. Got all that? One more time: underneath the planet of the apes are a bunch of telepathic humans who think a bomb is God. Oh and they can peel off their faces too. When all of this stuff starts happening, you really start to feel like you’re watching a totally different movie that seemingly has nothing to do with the whole “apes ruling over humans” thing. Instead, you’re watching a movie about humans with powers similar to the Talosians from 60’s Star Trek trying to control the minds of Brent, Nova, and yes, Col. Taylor.

Suddenly Heston is back! The telepathic creepy humans have imprisoned him and soon they try to force him into a duel to the death with Brent. Using the power of their minds they make Brent and Taylor hit each other with big pieces of spiky fake concrete until eventually a commotion distracts them. The gorillas are invading the Forbidden Zone to wipe out all the humans once and for all. Something interesting about all of this is the fact that Dr. Zaius is present with the gorilla raiding party, but finds the whole situation to be pretty terrible. You know things are bad when Zaius is a moderate among militaristic apes.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Pretty quickly a huge battle ensues as the gorillas raid the underground lair of the mutated humans just as these fanatics are about to set off this nuclear weapon. Taylor has determined this bomb is not only a nuclear one, but also a super-bomb capable of destroying the entire world. Chaos descends as gorillas advance on the humans and machine gun fire is everywhere. Are the apes going to set off the bomb out of ignorance? Will the mutant humans fulfill their deranged quest to destroy the world? Will Brent be the new hero and save the day? Well, the answer is none of the above because after Brent is shockingly gunned down by a gorilla, the bomb is set off by none other than Taylor himself. On purpose. Charlton Heston blows up the entire world.

Beneath the Planet of the ApesAt this point Orson Welles voice sounds over the events (no voiceovers have existed in the film prior) and tells us that the third planet in the solar system has gone silent… forever. Roll credits. Every single character you got to know in this movie was totally irrelevant because as soon as control of the movie was given back to Taylor, he decided (still) that human beings just weren’t deserving of anything and finally, and decisively damns them all to hell. To be fair, the idea that this cynical character, after enduring so much emotional trauma would do something this drastic isn’t entirely crazy. In many ways, Taylor was always headed to this place from his very first speech in the first film. Maybe being the destroyer of the Earth was his destiny.

So now that the world has been blown up, who’s ready for a sequel? I mean, the Earth was destroyed by the beloved protagonist of the first film, so by all reasonable assumptions, the Ape series had committed suicide at this point. And yet, there are three more films! And the next film; Escape from The Planet of the Apes, is not only much better than Beneath, but actually rivals the first one as a great science fiction film! And what will shock you is that it doesn’t really contradict the continuity of this film at all.


Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.

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