Beneath the Planet of the Apes is a tough one to deal with. Soldier all the way on through to the ending, and your reward is one of the most impressively demented (in my opinion) and most influential (somewhat more objective) conceits in all of 1970s movie sci-fi - and with the '70s just five months old, when it opened. But when I say "soldier through", I do mean it; the first hour of Beneath the Planet of the Apes can be a pretty tedious sit, re-running most of the material of 1968's Planet of the Apes on a lower budget, with a substantially less appealing lead actor, and altogether degraded effect. And to top it all off, the best parts of the film are also the places where it's most ineffective as a sequel. So all in all, just a right bizarre beast of a picture.

The most bizarre thing of all happens at the very immediate start, though we don't realise it just yet. Over a shot of the ocean steadily rolling into a beach, we hear Roddy McDowall reciting the sacred words of the ape religion that he delivered in the last film: "Beware the beast Man... he is the harbinger of death". And by the time he gets to the end of that monologue (which is much longer than I just described), we see him - that is to say, we see the last two scenes of Planet of the Apes, condensed somewhat, as a way of reminding us where we left off two years ago (no home video in 1970, don't forget). The bizarre part? The next time we see him, Roddy McDowall's character is played by a different actor.

Such a colossal, conspicuous "fuck you, we entirely do not care" moment will not happen again, but you certainly can't watch Beneath the POTA without picking up that it's much cheaper than its predecessor, and made with far less concern about getting things right. Thus was the very different landscape for sequels in the late '60s and early '70s than in the post-Star Wars era, and especially the 21st Century; there was a certain tawdriness in the very idea of a sequel and of course nobody would pretend they were respectable enough to sink the same resources into one as the original got. Which is, ultimately, the source of most of Beneath's woes: Charlton Heston sure didn't want to humiliate himself, so he appeared in something closer to an extended cameo than a legitimate role; the budget was cut in half, which has all kinds of negative impacts on the effects and makeup; and to make sure that the thing could be cranked out with no fuss, the producers downgraded from director Franklin J. Schaffner (not any kind of great artist, but a confident and capable meat-and-potatoes director who instead spent 1970 making Patton, the film that won him an Oscar) to Ted Post, a veteran director of TV Westerns. And a couple features, including the solid middle-tier Clint Eastwood vehicle Hang 'Em High, but it's pretty evident that the skill-set 20th Century Fox wanted to see him exercise was the ability to make something fast, cheap, and legible.

Anyway, the net effect of everything, as crafted by writers Paul Dehn and Mort Abrahams, is that Taylor (Heston) and the feral human Nova (Linda Harrison) truck off into the desert, where a curtain of fire stops their progress, and an earthquake rips a deep crevice into the earth's surface. Having thus gotten a good days' work out of a visibly disinterested Heston, who has rarely been worse than he is here (particularly in the final 10 minutes), the film skips over to another crash-landing of an ANSA spacecraft from the 20th Century, with astronauts Brent (James Franciscus) and his unnamed captain (Tod Andrews) crawling out of the wreckage. Don't worry about that captain's identity; he'll be dead just as soon as Brent can use him as an exposition sounding board to let us know that this is apparently a rescue mission for the mission from the last movie, which is just the most stupid conceivable plot hook. How in the name of the mighty and everlasting bomb did they even know a rescue mission was necessary? But we need to get a dimestore Heston here somehow, so a rescue mission it's to be.

The next hour is effectively nothing at all but a whirlwind retelling of Planet of the Apes: the 20th Century human pokes around the desert till he finds Nova and the ape city, where liberal chimpanzee scientists Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (David Watson) square off against the religious/scientific orthodoxy, in the form of orangutan Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), who is himself busily trying to shout down the military, led by gorilla General Ursus (James Gregory) - this last character representing the  only predominately new plotline we're going to get for a while. None of this is actively offensive, but none of it is very interesting, either; it's a pale imitation of the original, with more muddled social commentary (including a humdinger of a line suggesting - fuck, stating outright - that humans are defined by having white skin, which is a fatally bad miscalculation for a series that actively wants to be a parable about racism) and considerably worse production values (the elaborately expressive ape makeup from the first movie were replaced by considerably more rigid masks for all but the main actors. And even then, we can clearly, if only very briefly, see Hunter's real teeth in one shot). Watson is no replacement at all for McDowall - his relative lack of any kind of physicality and thoughtfulness about what a chimpanzee archaeologist might move like in face and body makes me appreciate McDowall even more - and Hunter has been reduced to such a perfunctory role that even though she's not significantly worse than in her great performance last time, it basically doesn't matter that she's in the film at all.

It's a terrifically broken combination of moving much too quickly and being much too boring. Franciscus has the matinee-star chops to sell this material, but he has very little charisma, and the film undercuts him at every turn, fatally reminding us over and over again that Heston used to be the star. Plus, the script over-explains things to us: this is particularly true of the opening 15 minutes, which unimaginatively tell us what happened to Taylor well in advance of our nominal protagonist learning the same, mostly through Nova's flashbacks as she stares at Brent with mouth agape. I cannot but wonder how much the film might have been if it opened as a mystery, with the audience and Brent both trying to figure out where the hell is Taylor, before Heston's appearance deep into the final act.

None of this is exactly obnoxious, but it's hardly good - just a lazy sequel comme les autres. Hunter and Evans are still great in their roles, and Leonard Rosnman's score is an excellent follow-up to Jerry Goldsmith's work in the original; if anything, it's even more alien in its metallic, tuneless modernism than Goldsmith's work. Otherwise, the first hour is little more than a waiting game for the moment that Brent and Nova go beneath the planet of the apes, to find the remnants of civilised humanity living a horrible existence in the ruins of the New York subway. Here they have formed a religion centered around an unexploded nuclear bomb, in grotesque parody of Christian liturgy, complete with  Rosenman's angular, grating takes on the Gloria Patri and "All Things Bright and Beautiful" completing the sense of a mad religion that has taken hold in a disordered world. And that's even before we discover that the humans are physically corrupted mutants using masks to disguise their burned-off skin (for reasons that, admittedly, seem to have more to do with shocking the audience than anything that makes sense for their specific culture). I'm sorry, mutants with telepathic powers. I'm sorry, murderously insane mutants with telepathic powers.

Once it goes underground, Beneath the Planet of the Apes turns into one of the best loopy-as-hell sci-fi adventures of its generation, which is a good thing and a bad thing. A bad thing, because nothing else in the Planet of the Apes series has quite this flavor of florid pulp fiction, more horrific and cheaply psychedelic than the more satiric, intellectual thrills of the first movie. And it doesn't reflect all that well on a movie with Planet of the Apes in its title that it picks up substantially once we leave behind the apes. A good thing, because now at least the film is a delight to watch, even if it's at least somewhat delightful on the level of kitsch.

Not exclusively! The mutants' trap for the apes pursuing them is just plain great genre cinema, as they telepathically project a giant statue of the chimpanzee Lawgiver, who founded the ape religion hundreds of years ago, crying streaks of bright red blood. It's a shockingly demented image, one that feels Post or somebody had caught a matinee of a Jodorowsky film before shooting that scene, and Maurice Evans's despairing and then angry reaction shots as Zaius are almost certainly the best spot of acting in the whole film, and the only point that the expressiveness of the ape makeup matches the last movie.

Beyond that, everything set in the subterranean bomb-worshipers' world is delectably weird, with art directors William Creber and Jack Martin Smith returning from the first movie to make another impressively organic series of spaces whose organic evolution from the modern world, across the gulf of total nuclear annihilation, can be read just in how the spaces are developed. It's among my favorite of all post-apocalyptic settings in '70s cinema, both for the design and for the sublimely surreal, off-putting tone of it all. This is, like the fella said, a madhouse - a madhouse. And a splendidly mad one, too.

The film just gets better and better as it rockets along, turning into a story of one paranoid, violent society - the apes, terrified to the point of mania by the idea of smart humans - coming into contact with a society that has refined moral coldness into an austere philosophy of purefied nihilism. It's not as pointed or purposeful as the thematic resonance in the first film, but at least it captures something of the bleakness of the original, the sense that we are definitely on the wrong the track, and damn well deserve what we get if we can't course-correct. And that goes all the way to the film's closing line, a steady and unforgivingly objective condemnation of every human who has ever lived, delivered by an uncredited, instantly recognisable Paul Frees.

None of this has the weight or intellectual maturity of the original - it's a little bit of just spectacular bleakness for the sake of it, arguably - but for such a visibly low-grade bit of sci-fi puffery to aspire to this kind of cruelly cosmic perspective is damned impressive anyway. In some ways, this is my least favorite of the first five Planet of the Apes movies, but it does get to where it needs to be to stand as a worthy entry in the series. Not by a huge margin, but it gets there.

Reviews in this series
Planet of the Apes (Schaffner, 1968)
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (Post, 1970)
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (Taylor, 1971)
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (Thompson, 1972)
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (Thompson, 1973)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Wyatt, 2011)
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Reeves, 2014)
War for the Planet of the Apes (Reeves, 2017)