It’s true in cinema, as it is in real life: sometimes we look back through the haze of nostalgia and remember things to be better than they actually were. Conversely, sometimes we look back and — jaded by age, muddled by circumstance, or justified by something as simple as “not in the mood” — we underestimate an experience and unfairly write it off as meaningless.

I am guilty of the latter, as indicated in words I expressed in my review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I described “four crummy sequels” that began after Charlton Heston hollered “you maniacs!” in the sock-ya-in-the-face ending to the original Apes film in 1968.

A reader responded to my review saying they agreed with my glowing appraisal of the new film but took objection to my flick-of-the-wrist dismissal of the first sequel: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). So, curious to see if I’d missed something, I dug out Beneath the Planet of the Apes from my DVD collection (perched next to the Chucky and Puppet Master box sets) and sat down for an hour and a half of retro ape-n-human relations. Hazily recalling the film from my early university years, I was not expecting much.

And so, a new Cinetology series kicked-off: ‘Classic or Clunker?’ which will endeavour to determine whether movies the punters often label a “classic” after a few beers are deserving of that mantle. Think “low art” flicks like Gremlins. Robocop. Ghostbusters. BMX Bandits. Many of us remember them as great movies. But are they? I will be taking suggestions. If you have any, please email me or leave a suggestion in the comments section.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes begins right at the point the original ends — even replaying the infamous Statue of Liberty scene — but then resets the narrative coordinates back to the beginning of the first and asks the audience to accept a new story initially fashioned in precisely the same way as the previous one.

Another astronaut, John Brent (James Fransiscus) has arrived in ape land, and after meeting a mute scantily clad hottie must come to terms with the oh-the-horror of this primate-populated planet.

He spies a congregation of apes engaged in a kind of political meeting in which they blabber bigoted comments about white skin and talk about reclaiming their land. It is the first of many overtly racial overtones. And it provides Brent the perfect reason to run off into the forests.

Apes have been hearing reports of strange manifestations in the forbidden land, for which the minister of scientist Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans) cannot explain. He is asked what is more dangerous than famine; he replies “the unknown.” Read into that as you will. It’s one of the many memorable lines that alternately tick the boxes of intellect and pseudo intellect.

Brent bumps into a couple of empathetic and intelligent apes, who observe that “the trouble with us intellectuals is that we have no power.” One of them reminds Brent that, if he is ever caught, to never speak under any circumstance. If the apes hear him speak (humans can’t talk, you see) they “will dissect you and kill you, in that order.” As we would an ape. Geddit?

There are innumerable parallels to human society: war, religion, racial tensions, “human” rights, etcetera. Indeed, the point is that this is human society, or at least a mirror image of it. There are angry military apes, peacefully protesting hippy apes, a society with hierarchies, government ministers, religion, infrastructure…

This is why Beneath the Planet of the Apes’s allegories about humanity lose their edge: because the roles of the humans and the apes could just as easily be switched. It’s a simple inversion and an easy gimmick. If that’s the point, it’s a largely self-defeating exercise, but Post and his screenwriters are thirsty to keep pushing ideas, however scattered and unhinged. Is this film meaningless? No. There is too much meaning, or too much potential meaning, flaunted too brazenly.

If only director Ted Post (Magnum Force) played it slyly, more subtle, and credited the audience with a bit more intelligence. Some moments are pitifully obvious and/or extraneous, such as scenes in which character spell out in dialogue the screenwriters’ already obvious parallels. On the other hand, this obviousness thrusts relatively complex ideas right in the face of audiences who might never bother to pick up on them.

The storyline’s weirdness intensifies when Brent bumps into a subterranean clan of freaky humans who can communicate using their minds and control other humans. They are a congregation of super advanced idiots who pray and sing (“all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small…”) in worship to a ready-to-use atomic bomb. These scenes have a strong whiff of Phantom of the Opera, even down to the mangled faces beneath their masks. They say they are a peaceful people. They don’t kill their enemies but get their enemies to kill each other, and this leads to an unusual clash between Brent and Charlton Heston’s Colonel George Taylor.

This is roughly when the mesh holding together the film’s interior logic — whatever there was — begins to crumble like a brittle slice of cheese. There are too many parables, too many parallels to human behavior, too many thought bubbles, too many muddled ideas, so much meat thrown in the pan and so little time spent cooking it. Beneath the Planet of the Apes is a brave film for this or any time, but it lacks clarity of thought and the coyness to play with the cryptic nature of its thinly veiled messages and metaphors.

Post keeps the pace chugging along consistently and the humans in ape costumes hold up surprisingly well over time. They well surpass the suspension of disbelief test.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes is a bold movie of bad weirdness, crazy half-baked ideas, enough to fill many a thesis. Orbiting around the plethora of thought bubbles seems to be the assumption that if you build it, they will come; that at least some of its ideas and commentaries will stick like fridge magnets to the viewers brain. That assumption is correct, even if the process is discombobulating and intellectually unsatisfying. The film ends with an almighty clap of thunder, a conclusion as dramatic as they come.

This much is clear about the Planet of the Apes series: it is bold, unconventional and uncompromisingly anti-Hollywood set of movies, with flecks of brilliance sprinkled across the schlock and spectacle.

Verdict: Is Beneath the Planet of the Apes a classic?

Yes. But more a high-powered, partly botched experiment.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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