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Thursday, February 11, 2016

A Green and Insignificant Planet: Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Beneath the Planet of the Apes is a pretty strange follow-up to the first film. That BBC piece I mentioned last time refers to the fact that Boulle was unable to write an acceptable sequel to the film, though it gives no explanation as to why. It's hard not to wonder what the studio wanted, how much Heston wanted to be involved, etc. Heston's only in it for what amounts to maybe three scenes (surprisingly, because he wanted nothing to do with the film).

Beneath the Planet of the Apes: 1970, directed by Ted Post

The story goes like this...Another space ship--sent to rescue Heston's character Taylor, whose comrades are never mentioned--lands on future-Earth, and its sole survivor, Brent (who looks more than a little like Taylor) runs into Nova, alone on the horse she and Taylor took at the end of the last film. We learn from a flashback that Nova and Taylor encountered some strange things as they wandered along, and Taylor vanished into a rock wall that appeared out of nowhere and then disappeared. Nova takes Brent to the ape city, where he witnesses some hawkish military rhetoric by a gorilla leader. Nova then takes Brent to Zira and Cornelius, who basically just tell them to leave before they're caught. They're caught anyway, but escape with Zira's help. The gorilla war party heads toward the forbidden zone to kill somebody...I got kind of lost as to why they felt the need to go to war against an enemy they hadn't even seen. Brent and Nova find a "human" group living underground and worshiping an atomic bomb. The humans are psychic and can create illusions and control people's minds. They throw Brent in prison with Taylor (surprise!) and force them to fight. Nova shows up and for the first time speaks--Taylor's name. This distracts the "human" forcing them to fight, and the good guys kill him. By this time the gorillas have arrived, killing the "humans" and coming to the room with the bomb. That's where Brent and Taylor are headed, too (Nova dies along the way, shot by a gorilla). So Taylor gets shot, Brent gets shot, and as he dies Taylor sets off the bomb. The film ends with somebody narrating: "In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead." Roll credits.

Cheerful stuff. Not what anybody expected in 1970, I'm guessing. I remember being particularly shocked when Heston got shot. It just seemed so unlikely.

Anyway, in dealing with stories, I like to pay attention to the little things, the things that could probably be removed without damaging the plot. In these things, we can look for meaning. Like Zira's nephew from the first Apes movie, who goes on and on about how grown-ups suck. In this, we've got a thematically similar scene in which a bunch of apes protest the gorilla war party, chanting for peace and freedom. The only mention of their age is made by the gorillas, who call them "young people" and force them off the road. This movie is a product of its time, of course, so we also get Zira reflecting on Dr. Zaius, who chooses to accompany the gorillas. She says of him, "He has only one motive: to keep  things as they have always been." She doesn't use the term "establishment," but she might have.

Then there's the moment at which the lack of speech on the part of Nova and her kindred becomes a moment for philosophy. Hiding out underground, confronted with the fact, as Taylor was at the end of the first film, that he's on his own planet far in the future, Brent stares at Nova as she sleeps. He wonders aloud, "Are you what we were? Before we learned to talk. Made a mess of everything. Did any goo ever come from all that talk around all those tables?" He looks around at the ruins of his own civilization as he says it. There's no further discussion of the nature, morality, and value of human speech (which is something that Marshall McLuhan described as "the flower of evil" in Understanding Media), so we've got to look elsewhere for the consequences of talk. For instance, the future humans no longer need to talk; they communicate telepathically. They seem powerful, able to create illusions and control minds, but are ultimately impotent against the apes and their guns. And we can't forget that all the talking Taylor did in the first film didn't convince the apes in charge to listen to him or grant him his freedom. It's only at the end, when he's got a rifle, that he actually accomplishes that.

The apes, of course, talk. Though it's interesting to note that when confronted by the humans' defensive illusion of ape bodies, a wall of flame, and--significantly--the appearance of a bleeding statue of the apes' Lawgiver, the apes display the only ape-like behavior in the first two films: they grunt and screen and hop around like gorillas do today. It's up to the orangutan Zaius to convince them of the illusion.

Then there's the religious factor. Brent chokes on stagnant holy water at one point. The bleeding Lawgiver statue. The crucified ape illusion. The future humans worship a bomb capable of destroying the whole planet. And the whole planet gets destroyed. We don't learn a whole lot about ape religion, despite all the references to scripture in the first film. The Lawgiver is pretty important.

Everything leads to death, and not even an important death, as that final narration reminds us: the earth and everything that happens on it, is insignificant, despite how green it is. What a great movie.

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