Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Beneath the Planet of the Apes

1. You know how live albums are sometimes described as a band’s greatest hits played faster and louder? This sequel to Planet of the Apes feels likes the original movie’s greatest hits played slower and quieter. With a new astronaut landing on the planet, Beneath the Planet of the Apes goes through many of the same revelatory moments—the initial exploration of the desert, the discovery of the ape city, and so on—while making each retread a lesser version of the original. One need only compare the early scenes in the Forbidden Zone to see the difference. Original director Franklin J. Schaffner was almost too stylish at times, but his crane-drunk, angle-sniffing camerawork in the desert at least resulted in some evocatively lonely imagery. By comparison, sequel director Ted Post brings the brusque literalism of a television director to his desert sequences. The camera simply pans over a flat plain with a mountain in the distance. Yup, that’s a desert alright.

Our hero, Lean Beef McStudly (James Franciscus), continues this trend towards diminishing returns by giving us a watered down version of Charlton Heston’s brittle astronaut from the first film (luckily, Heston shows up at the end of the sequel to lend a touch of movie-star grandeur to the otherwise debased proceedings). Worst of all, the all-important they-blew-it-up revelation is a mere whisper next to the original’s melodramatic roar. Whereas Heston realized he was on Earth when he discovered the Statue of Liberty, Franciscus has to come to terms with the annihilation of 20th century civilization when he stumbles across Queensboro Plaza. The setting trades the iconic for the mundane, and the performance is similarly diminished. You’ll find more dramatically persuasive emotional breakdowns on the subway every single day at rush hour.

2. Let’s talk about film editing for a moment. Film editing is a fine and difficult alchemy, with results that are not always expected or desired. When you put together 1 and 2, you don’t always get 3—sometimes, you get 12. I’ll put this into context using an example from Beneath the Planet of the Apes: cutting from a deathly wounded man to a scene where someone is patting down dirt on a freshly dug grave does not necessarily imply that the man died in his sleep while angels whispered sweet lullabies in his ears and god tickled his toes. No, it suggests he was buried alive.

3. When Franciscus is locked up in the slave cart, Zira—the friendly ape scientist from the first film, if you’re keeping track of these things—grabs the key and unlocks the cage for the man to escape. You would think someone would ask why she was opening the cage when they just closed it, but she justifies her actions by saying, “I’ll just double lock it.”

Really? Is that a thing now? If I was a guard and someone said they were going to double lock the cage, I would say, hey, whoa, hold it a minute now, don’t go sticking that key back in there. That lock ain’t getting any more locked than it already is. What, do you think you can make it extra locked? Twice locked? Is there some special, secret level of locking things that I’ve never been told about? Let me tell you something, most locks tend to have just two settings: locked and unlocked. So just leave that cage double unlocked (you know, locked), if you would be so kind.

Yes, this is exactly the sort of thing I would care about if I were a talking gorilla in the year 3955.

4. Due to the whole double-locking fiasco, we are gifted with a fight scene on a fast-moving slave cart. Unfortunately, the movie awkwardly (and obviously) cuts between Franciscus in a studio in front of a rear projection screen and a stunt double on an actual moving cart outside. I suppose the star did not want to risk his life doing stunt work, and can you blame him? Who would dare risk the shame? “He died for his art” is a particularly stupid statement in almost any context, but none more so than a sequel to Planet of the Apes.

That said, I find this to be a helpful rule of thumb: if your star isn’t willing to die for your movie, then you either need to find a new star or a new movie.

5. For all the inherent goofiness of having people walk around in monkey masks debating science and religion, the Ape movies have always had a dark edge to their satire, and this one is no different. This incarnation of the series introduces the gorilla class of ape society, a warmongering lot who are thumping their chests (quite literally) and agitating for invading the Forbidden Zone.

The scenes of the army running preparation drills possess the innate comedy of people doing very serious things while wearing very stupid outfits, but that’s about all you can say for this whole ill-conceived invasion subplot. Perhaps the filmmakers felt that this would make a nice bit of social commentary. I suppose it might have if it had actually made any sense.

Here’s the thing about wars: you need an enemy. There are a lot of forms this enemy can take. You can have a traditional war and meet your enemy on contested ground and battle for position. You can have a cold war and never directly engage your enemy in armed conflict. You can have a war on terror and fight a network of shadow-enemies across many territories. But you’ll notice that most wars have some sort of opposing force, which makes the fighting that much more photogenic and helps disperse the burden of organizing things and split costs on costume rental fees.

In this movie, there is no enemy. As the army marches off into the Forbidden Zone, protestors block the way while waving signs that say, “Wage Peace Not War.” It’s a lovely sentiment, and completely nonsensical in this context. The army certainly isn’t waging peace, but they can’t really wage war either, seeing as how they’re heading into uninhabited territory with no knowledge that any enemy force even exists. In essence, they are invading a desert. One would think this is a brilliantly undefeatable military strategy, except that they still somehow fuck it up and die anyway.

Moral: always have an enemy when waging a war. It’s much more difficult to win, but much less embarrassing when you lose.

6. Giant stone monkey Jesus weeping tears of blood!

I am experiencing a kind of ecstasy. Avert your eyes.

7. The “beneath” part in the title of this movie comes from the cultish society of telepathic mutants living below the ruins of New York City projecting trippy hallucinations to fuck with the apes and astronauts. As you can imagine, they are a dour, smug, and uniformly loathsome bunch, spending all their time worshipping an active nuclear bomb while singing bizarre hymns about how the weapon will kill the devils and make angels of everyone. All of which begs the question of how a nuclear weapon got to be stored in the New York subway system in the first place—or should we just take this as more proof of the stupid recklessness that damned humanity in the first place?

In one of the movie’s more inexplicable reveals, the telepaths peel off their faces, exposing their hideously veiny, pink-grey heads. Now, if I could, I would like to seriously consider the tomato head mutants for a moment. Why would a civilization in which everyone is equally disfigured need to wear latex masks? Are their rotten tomato heads simply too sensitive to be exposed to the air, or are they just that vain? I incline to the latter explanation, as it fits with the movie’s bleak opinion of humanity. Even in an apocalyptic wasteland where everyone is similarly scarred, even when you can read everyone else’s thoughts and always know for certain if they are thinking about how fat your ass looks in your robe, even despite all of that—people will still feel insecure. We’re just that shallow and stupid, apparently. Maybe we did deserve to be nuked after all. Tomato head mutants, you’ve convinced me.

8. If you have to talk out loud when communicating with a telepath, maybe you should think before you speak.

9. The first time I saw Beneath the Planet of the Apes, it left me positively giddy (yes, that’s right, I’ve watched this movie more than once). No, it’s not a good movie by any objective measure. But it does have one thing going for it: the death of all life. The movie ends with Charlton Heston, oozing red paint, gasping a dying curse (“You bloody bastard!”), then falling on the trigger for a nuclear weapon that destroys the entire Earth. And then there are three sequels! You can understand my excitement.

The glory of this nutty shit-bar of a movie—and it is glorious, for all of its innumerable flaws—lies in its sheer bleakness. If the first movie were a person, it would be a crazy derelict carrying a sign that reads, “The End is Nigh, Repent.” If this sequel were a person, it would be a crazy derelict carrying a sign that reads, “The End is Nigh, We’re Fucked.”

In Beneath the Planet of the Apes, there’s no redemption, no false hope or appeals to virtue. The original Ape movie suggested primitivism might be the only way to avert nuclear disaster, but even that escape route is closed to us now. The anti-science apes are just as likely to trigger the bomb as the all-powerful mutants. Both knowledge and ignorance lead us into the same smoldering pile of ash. Strap yourself to this movie and it will rocket you straight into the blackest void, with you laughing all the way. You remember in Dr. Strangelove the cowboy bombardier riding his nuke, yee-hawing on his way to the grave? Imagine that scene without a trace of irony and you will understand the sick appeal of this movie.

After all, this is a movie where the hero happens to be the destroyer of all life on Earth, a movie either too clumsy or too deranged to staunch the horror that seeps through the cracks in its story. You would think that all of this cold-war nuclear anxiety would have lost its sting over time, but that isn't the case here. Something about this vision of inevitable nuclear annihilation feels stranded from its time, a marooned howl, like a message in a bottle washed up a beach. You would think the contents of the bottle couldn’t be relevant anymore, but when you open it up, the only message you find is, “You’re going to die.” And in that hesitant pause between laughter and scream, this movie lives its life.


Natalie said...

Wow. This review is probably my favourite, Joseph - you've blown any expectations I may have had out of the water! Maybe with a nuke! Fallen on by Charleton Heston! Funny, incisive, extremely well-written, and did I mention funny? Thanks for that!

Joe Wet Cow said...

Thanks, Natalie. Glad you enjoyed it. And I'm also happy to see you've begun blogging again.