Futility and Nuclear Annihilation in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”

The follow-up to the legendary classic Planet of the Apes (1968) is a strange one, which I think is fair to say, but it’s also far more speculative than the first in the series and deserves a little more credit for its theme and ambition.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) picks up where the original left off, and features a second astronaut (James Franciscus) landing on the monkey planet in search of Taylor (Charlton Heston).

After stumbling upon a series of clues and realizing that he is in fact not on a different planet but on Earth and in its own post-apocalyptic future, Brent discovers a group of humans who have survived the war with the apes living deep beneath the planet’s surface. As a society of telepathic remnants who revere a massive “Doomsday Bomb,” the mutant humans decide that the inevitable ape invasion of the “Forbidden Zone” must result in the triggering of the bomb itself. It is up to Taylor and Brent to stop them from setting off the weapon to prevent the destruction of the planet.

Clearly, Beneath the Planet of the Apes was inspired by the nuclear tensions relevant the decade preceding the production of the film and the concerns for what the future held in such a hostile environment. Was it possible that every living thing on the planet could be wiped out by mutually assured destruction? It was undoubtedly on everyone’s mind during the era the film was made.

What the film does well, and what its predecessor accomplished, too, is play off the xenophobic fears of the warring factions involved in the film’s plot—especially the apes—but it also employs the real-world tensions of foreign policy that had Americans on edge from the Nuclear Age onward, partially because the idea of “diplomacy” to the common citizen is either alien or seems an easy task to execute without realizing that money and power needlessly convolute even the most minute aspects of policy in the political realm.

I should say that the human characters—other than Taylor and Brent—have a similar cynical sheen over their characterization, which is to say that human rationale, over ape rationale, doesn’t leave the film unscathed. The telepathic, underground-dwelling humanoids are clearly encumbered by their own fears of annihilation; so much so, that they would rather destroy the planet than let it fall into the hands of a few damn, dirty apes. The irony is all too real.

And, spoiler alert, that’s exactly what happens in a bafflingly genius move on the film’s part: the two main protagonists are killed and the world is destroyed by the “Doomsday Bomb” in the climactic throes of a monkey frenzy. It’s bleak but it speaks to the futility of the time, or at least the feelings of futility in the hearts of every American strolling the streets of what could be a suburban nuclear holocaust if the prevailing attitudes reached a fever pitch.

Of course, there is also a recurring theme in the “Planet of the Apes” series of racism (or in this case ‘speciesism’) that resonates in the Trump-era, but one that was surely apparent when Obama was president, and when this film was made in the 1970s.

Unquestionably, Dr. Zaius’s outburst toward Taylor at the end of the film is a reflection of this: “You ask me to help you?! Man is evil! Capable of nothing but destruction!” That sentiment can be taken as an all-encompassing look at Man itself and its countless fractured relationships within its own race; after all, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated only a few short years earlier and the tumult of race relations is still an ongoing issue even through basic public services such as housing and policing. In response to Dr. Zaius, Taylor’s final expression of hatred toward the apes is just as fitting: he exclaims, “You….bloody….bastard,” and falls forward, triggering the “Doomsday Bomb,” killing everyone and himself.

It’s very Charlton Heston-y.

What I think the film is trying to tell us in so many words is: “If we don’t buck up and knock off the schoolyard antics—we are all going to die,” and I think this gives the film a “timelessness” in a way. Not in the “Forest Gump” or “Shawshank Redemption” timeless sort of way, but in the “2001” or “Blade Runner” sort of timelessness.

With that being said, the film certainly has its problems—lack of concision, cheap effects, some rambling plot ideas—but it’s a pretty solid exploration of a very dark real-world theme and one that definitely rests somewhere near the heart of political science—futile political motivation. We definitely see this theme in US foreign policy (“us” over “them”), in other country’s treatment of their civilians (the use of violence and coercion), and in the capitalist paradigm rampant in emerging global markets (profit over human life).

That is to say, there is a lot going on in this film that is both prescient and appropriate, from the themes to the story, which makes it all the more engaging, and, frankly—that ending is pretty dang cool because it’s legitimately “shit or get off the pot,” and, boy, the filmmakers went for it.

I will end this post with the closing narration of the film, just after the planet explodes in nuclear annihilation, which I think is more than appropriate:

“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.”