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I am a blogger and podcaster who loves music, film, and literature. You can read my articles here on The Vintage Talk Bag, my personal blog, or by stumbling across my short stories on the internet.

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.”

 

 

 

“Zombie Hunter” fails to kill its prey

Zombie Hunter (2013) is the kind of movie I wanted to enjoy. It has all of the elements of a classic splatter flick: over-the-top comic gore, action, and Danny Trejo—who can still maintain the same level of cool even though his filmography looks like an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-style sandwich. Plus, with a kind of gritty animation from a grindhouse flick established on the cover, one would think this movie would be a rollicking good time if only a little corny…but, it only gets a little rollicking and that doesn’t transfer to a good time.

The movie is directed by K. King, who also directed Cyborg X (2016), and produced both Zombie Hunter and a film that is currently in post-production titled The Dunes. While I’ve never heard of King, I think there should be some encomiums given for an explosively “going for it” first outing. I believe a lot of other directors would be timid when it comes to the violence associated with a splatter flick or the topic itself (zombie apocalypse), but King doesn’t pull away and this results in some pretty audacious attempts to shock the audience, including zombie decapitations and an axe fight between Trejo and a massive CGI train wreck. 

The lead actor, Martin Copping, who both narrates and portrays Hunter, a “badass” in the wasteland of future zombie-plagued America, talks with a sort of Clint Eastwood grit that adds to the films grindhouse-theme, which also helps elevate his character, but inconsistent tone create a weird void where the viewer isn’t sure whether they are supposed to take him seriously or if they are supposed to treat him as a reluctant hero. It is so utterly important to nail a good character that an audience can relate to, but I think King leaned too heavily into his setting and forgot to punch up the on-screen personalities.

In regards to the plot, the audience comes to find out that the film has little to offer in the way of original story. It is similar to the Robert Rodriguez film Planet Terror (2007) in that the heroes of the film are trying to get to somewhere else (a storyline that maims so many prospective zombie thrillers), thus it becomes a generic monster movie fairly quickly.

If you will, I would like to sum up Zombie Hunter in this short bout of dialogue:

“Man, we are stuck here at Point A!” Hunter said.

“I know of a place where there is sunshine and women, and no zombies to be seen! It’s at a place called Point B!” replied a crazy old pilot guy who will undoubtedly die because he sucks.

While the same could be said of the finale of Dawn of the Dead (1978), I would argue that Director George Romero’s film was set in an iconic-looking mall where the heroes’ plan was to remain there within the walls of consumerist idolatry indefinitely, thus the characters are able to flesh themselves out in an organic and unique way through interaction. That’s how truly great horror movies are made, by examining the experience of the prospective victims and how it changes them.

Zombie Hunter, meanwhile, does not try to play with the clichés rife in the movie. For instance, consider all of the classic Zombie Hunter characters that appear throughout the story: dirty blond lady, ripped religious Mexican guy, petite shy girl who is hot for the protagonist, old pilot guy, and fat pervert. It’s like a terrible collection of Pogs.

Not to mention, Danny Trejo’s role as Jesus, a hard-boiled leader of the survivors, is seemingly restricted to where he as an actor could shoot scenes, which appear to be mostly from his living room. There is a dinner scene in the film where it looks like Trejo is sitting at the head of the communal table as the other characters sit around and converse with one another. The camera snaps around the room, catching pieces of exposition from the other characters, and then occasionally veers back to Trejo who is nodding and smiling in a completely separate shot, never really joining the scene with anyone else.

This sort of lameness extends to the unnecessary CGI antagonist, which has no practical effect (literally), nor does it act as a separate antagonist. It merely appears, kills characters, and leaves; or, in the case of the finale, randomly shambles about in the background because the effects department didn’t know where to put it or what to do with it. The rest of the CGI comes off cleaner—but not by much.

The ideas are on the screen, but they just aren’t executed well, which I think is a good summation of the film.