Thursday, April 14, 2011

Beneath the Planet of the Apes


I complimented the first Apes movie for being full of ideas that could make for interesting conversation afterward. Beneath the Planet of the Apes is also crammed with ideas, but nearly all of them make you say, "What?" Seriously, this whole movie is a steaming pile of WTF.

Even though I maligned the world and studios for making the ending of the first movie known to all, from here on out expect spoilers in my comments about the sequels. Partly, that's because the biggest cat is already out of the bag, but also it's because I'm watching these movies so you don't have to.

The movie begins with a shortened edit of the final minutes of the previous film. Just in case anyone forgot how that one ended, I suppose. After following Taylor and Nova into the wastes very briefly, we're taken to yet another crashed spaceship, and introduced to the real protagonist-- Brent. He's played by James Franciscus, and seems to have been cast mainly because he looks a lot like Charlton Heston.

Of course, right off the bat this doesn't make any sense. He claims that he followed the previous ship's trajectory and was on a rescue mission. But that's just crazy. At the beginning of PotA1, Taylor was recording his last message and saying knew it didn't matter since they were already 700 years in the future. That was kind of the point of the mission. Already we're off to a bad start.

Brent meets Nova, and we get some flashback scenes of Taylor encountering mysterious things in the Forbidden Zone, before disappearing. So, Brent and Nova have to go back to Ape City to get help from Zira and try to find Taylor. I mention this part of the plot not because it's important, but because it's so ridiculous. The script works so hard to incorporate Brent into this world. Why not just skip all of that and have Franciscus take over the role as Taylor? They wasted the first third of the movie reestablishing things we already know.

Anyway, there's a new ape in town; his name is Ursus. He's a militant gorilla leader, and he's decided that they need to invade the Forbidden Zone before this unknown enemy invades them. This could have been interesting if it had been done with any subtlety like the first movie.

This is probably as good a time as any to talk about the budget, or lack thereof. In the crowd scenes of apes, many (if not most) are wearing obviously cheap rubber ape masks. It's pretty distracting. The main ape character still have the full make-up, at least. But then we get a sauna scene between Ursus and Dr. Zaius. Really? Seeing an ape in strange clothing riding a horse or wielding a gun can be pretty disturbing. Seeing two guys in ape suits taking a steam bath is laughable.

I read two interesting facts about the budget for Beneath: first, it was cut in half midway into the production, and second, because of it's tiny budget, this is actually the most profitable of the ape movies. Shocking.

It bothers me to think about how much different the movie could have been if they had taken a different attitude. As much as I liked seeing Heston again, it's really just a glorified cameo. Why not just replace him? That would free up a lot of cash, and also allow you to jump right into the story. Oh yeah, the story. Let me get back to that.

So, Brent and Nova find an underground cave that links up to the old New York subway system. In huge underground caverns they find the remains of many of the famed NY landmarks: the library, the stock exchange, Radio City Music Hall, and the Rockefeller Center, apparently all within about a block of each other. Convenient.

They find a sophisticated group of humans living underground. At first, they don't talk either, but instead communicate telepathically. After a while, they consent to speak, mainly so the audience can better follow the conversations. Their mental powers give them the power to create illusions, which they use to scare the apes out of the Forbidden Zone. However, this time it doesn't work and now they're worried. They hang out in a big church and worship the "Bringer of Peace," which turns out to be a giant nuclear bomb with the Greek letters Alpha and Omega written on the wing. Get it? And as if that isn't shocking enough, they then "show their true faces" by removing their masks. It turns out, all the humans are just irradiated mutants wearing human masks. I'll give them credit for an interesting twist on the whole ape mask thing.

Anyway, they're holding Taylor, so Brent and Nova get put in jail with him. Then they use their mental powers to make them fight. After a Kirk-esque fight between two people who look alike, it backfires and they're able to kill the mentalist. They make it to the church just as the apes invade. Firefights and fistfights ensue. The head priest starts to set off the bomb, but dies. Nova dies. Taylor gets shot. Brent kills a bunch of apes, then dies. Finally, Taylor struggles to the console and with his last breath, sets off the bomb. The end. Roll credits.

Overall, it felt like a bad Star Trek episode. There are some interesting ideas in there, but even they are rhinestones, not diamonds, in a very large pile of rough. I liked the vision the mental mutants used to deter the apes: a huge statue of their god, "the Lawgiver," bleeds from the eyes and mouth while surrounded by fire and apes crucified upside down. I like that it was Dr. Zaius, the ape of faith, who doesn't believe it and charges through. I thought there was great wasted potential in the idea that humans weren't mute, but had become telepathic. I did love the irony of Taylor being the one to "damn them to hell" the same way his own race damned themselves.

I will admit to being surprised by the ending. All three main characters die, then the whole place is obliterated by a nuclear bomb! How in the world did they make a sequel to that!? Unfortunately, I won't find out until next week.

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