Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder
Beneath the Planet of the Apes: Let’s Just Get it Over With
Written Review by David Carter
Occasionally there will be parts of the year where there won’t be any movies that Yoder and I will want to see, or conversely we won’t want to write about. So on those weeks, we present you with some older films that we love or that one or both of us are discovering for the first time. So enjoy some thoughts on Beneath the Planet of the Apes
Some movies are just made in a way that stay relevant no matter what era they’re viewed in. This is sadly due to the reality that while things do generally get better with time, some wounds and conflicts are so deep that no matter how calm the waters appear on the surface, the swirl of muck and danger still exists down below. This is something that some Americans have been finding out the hard way these past couple of years. However, when it comes to timeless movies that deal with the always applicable issues that flare up like cold sores on the face of a person in denial about their affliction, it’s even more interesting when you look at the film’s outlook on the issue. For example, you look at a film like Do the Right Thing and see a story about flawed people stuck in a melting pot that never really melded together, but no matter how tense and out of hand things got, they never stooped to the level of the people who were supposedly there to keep the peace. It’s a viewpoint and outlook filled with nuance and depth. Do the Right Thing doesn’t offer any answers to a centuries old conflict, but it does pose some important questions (It’s not “Why did Mookie throw that trash can?” but “Why did the cops kill Radio Raheem?”). You can’t say it’s flippant.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes, on the other hand, says “Blow it all up, it’s all pointless anyway.”
Beneath the Planet of the Apes is the follow up to the 1968 film Planet of the Apes, a film that’s largely coded and allegorical about its racial and political aims. It’s been interpreted as everything from a broader depiction of America’s class system and how foreigners operate inside it, to a racially charged allegory about fears of a black planet where black people (coded as apes, a very common racial put-down associated with black folks) had their way with America (spoilers: black people treat white people as badly as they’ve been treated and “blow up” liberty as we know it). However you choose to look at the film, one thing is pretty clear. Given its time of release (during the heat of the civil rights movement and coincidentally a day before Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination), its writers (which included Rod Serling, a man who perfected presenting unassuming and silly sci-fi as biting commentary), and its striking final image, the movie was about some aspect of the general unrest in America and American life at the time.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes takes that general idea of societal unrest and reaches for a logical extreme. The short version of the story is that after the events Planet of the Apes, our protagonist Taylor (played by notable Hollywood ham Charlton Heston) is unconvinced that this ape civilization lying within a designated safety zone is all that’s left in the world and decides to risk the danger of traveling outside of these confines. Taylor ends up disappearing behind a veil of some sort, leaving his companion Nova (Linda Harrison in a thankless role of mute eye candy that she sells anyway) to fend for herself. That is until another human crash lands in a spaceship similar to Taylor’s in the first film. This time our handsome everyman is Brent (the intelligent looking but decidedly less interesting James Franciscus) who upon meeting Nova and the fact that she’s wearing Taylor dog tags, decides that there’s a chance that Taylor is still alive and sets out to find him. What follows is a journey into snapshots of the civil unrest within the society of Ape City and its military power taking charge of its future. We also see that below the planet in what used to be the subway tunnels of New York City lies an “evolved” race of nuclear bomb worshipping humans that while disfigured from generations of radiation infused evolution also have psychic capabilities that keep their society hidden and safe.
It’s this (ahem) explosive cocktail of a fascist regime looking to exterminate something it sees as beneath them, crashing against a bunch of dangerous above-it-all religious zealots, with normal humans and peace-seeking apes stuck in between the madness. It’s certainly a nihilistic view on the discourse of the conflict between disparate groups. Groups who only seek flimsy justification for their actions, instead of seeking some sort of path to betterment in their already dangerous wasteland.
The mutants worship the bomb because it’s the physical symbol of the thing that gives them power, no matter how misguided that power is. They use this power to threaten and abuse anyone who even fails to be subdued by just their presence. They fail to recognize the irony of worshiping the totem that left the world in ashes. Sure, it’s seen as a cleansing force within their religion but even this is false considering that radiation is anything but clean. It’s a holy form of the might that the apes exhibit with small but effective military tactics.
The apes’ society is built on a system where those more interested in peace and progress aren’t as valued as those who want absolute control. The police and military are headed by General Ursus, an ape who’s more in tune with his own ego than the danger of trying to conquer an unknown region for the possibility of resources. He cares little about protesters who oppose the show of force and views the intellectuals and scientists of Ape City as hindrances instead of those to turn to for level headed and logical aid.
It’s all depressingly relevant to the Cold War, Vietnam and civil rights splattered late 60’s and 70’s and unfortunately continues to be. What makes this story so indicative of the time it’s written in is just how nihilistic it’s attitude toward these conflicts are. The rise of what was called New Hollywood (the arrival of young, more socially conscious directors as the new power holders in the studio system) brought along a darker outlook to even the most unassuming popcorn narrative. This manifests in Beneath the Planet of the Apes as the squabble between all parties resulting in mankind blowing up the Earth all over again (specifically and ironically Taylor, who was so devastated by the result of nuclear war), but this time for good. This ending was reportedly brought about as a final vindictive gesture by producer Richard Zanuck after being fired by his father and studio head Darryl Zanuck from 20th Century Fox. However, it doesn’t change its context within the film and its larger symbolic meaning. It’s a coarse statement that declares “Why bother at all with all the misery and injustice? Just end it all already.”