I have to confess to a considerable fondness for the first Planet of the Apes sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Though the film does have its flaws, and the drop in quality between the original and the sequel is precipitous, all of its problems can be forgiven due to one particular fact:
The ending is awesome.
Now, it may be a flaw in my character that makes me think most movies would be vastly improved if they ended with the destruction of the world. Especially I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, because everyone in that movie needs to die. And, of course, we shouldn't forget the unproduced script for Cannonball Run III: The Apocalypse, which, if it had been made, would have been the best of the trilogy.
But the ending of Beneath the Planet of the Apes is particularly awesome because, I would argue, it is entirely consistent with the misanthropic and nihilistic vision of the first two films, as expressed through the hero, Taylor.
(Fun Fact: Charlton Heston used this picture as his campaign poster when he ran for president of the NRA.)
Interpretations of Planet of the Apes, and evaluations of Beneath, often hinge on viewers' impressions of Taylor as a heroic figure. Specifically, in regards to his development through the first film: is he a misanthrope who is ultimately redeemed by his heroic defiance of the apes to become the savior of humanity, or is his misanthropy only reinforced throughout the film, driving him to become the final arbiter of humantity's fate?
At the start of Planet of the Apes, Taylor is a jerk. During the journey across the desert, he constantly needles Landon about his idealism. Taylor, on the other hand, is a cynic, yet his motivation for taking on this mission is tinged with optimism:
I'm a seeker too. But my dreams aren't like yours. I can't help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be.
This is the very definition of irony, as the rest of the movie will quash that optimism by proving not only that the apes are not better than humans, but also that humanity is even more murderous and destructive than he suspected. That is a dismal, depressing message.
One plan for the film was to have Taylor impregnate Nova, as his counterpart, Ulysse Mérou, does in Pierre Boulle's original novel. This would make the child a kind of messiah, and it would also have provided a nice parallel to the later movies, where Caesar, the child of Cornelius and Zira, becomes the founder of the more advanced ape race. Despite that symmetry, I think this would have been a bad idea, or at least not as good an idea as the one that was arrived at.
The Taylor/Nova relationship, however, is interesting, as it reinforces Taylor's misanthropy.
Taylor immediately picks out Nova from the first group of humans that the astronauts meet, and the two are captured together. Their mating is first consummated when Zira sets up a dicey blood transfusion between Nova and Taylor that luckily saves Taylor's life. Later, Zira believes that Nova even senses this blood connection, and Zira then pimps Nova out to Taylor by putting her in his cage.
At one point in the movie, Taylor delivers this dramatic monologue to Nova:
Imagine me needing someone. Back on Earth I never did. Oh, there were women. Lots of women. Lots of love-making but no love. You see, that was the kind of world we'd made. So I left, because there was no one to hold me there.
What is it, exactly, about Nova that he needs? What Nova provides for Taylor is the ideal relationship that he could not find on his Earth: a mute, passive woman who responds primally to instinctual needs for food and sex. And he also gets to name her.
Nova is, in fact, a step above the relationship that may have been Taylor's true motivation for taking on this mission: to create a new human race with Stewart, the female astronaut who dies during the space journey. The movie doesn't spend much time with Stewart, but I find this element of the plot to be the film at it's most subversive. Taylor makes the comment that Stewart was going to be the "new Eve," and it sounds like her purpose on the mission was to procreate with the male astronauts, which leads one to wonder why NASA felt the need to supply three Adams. They really made the wrong component redundant. Perhaps the "something better" that Taylor was seeking involved creating a new human race from scratch.
Taylor does spend much of the movie trying to defend humanity to the apes, but the film's classic climax causes Taylor to concede that the apes were right and that humans are undeniably destructive.
Oh my God. I'm back. I'm home. All the time, it was... We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!
"We finally really did it" conveys a sense of inevitability about the destruction wrought by humans, and "God damn you all to hell!" becomes a vow that Taylor will fulfill at the end of the next movie. It's not difficult, then, to see the destruction of the world as a logical conclusion.
Taylor is a film hero who is complex in ways that few others are. He's an asshole, and what character development he experiences over the course of the movie really doesn't cause him to lose that quality. There really is no redemption for him in either film.
As much as I might disagree with Charlton Heston's politics, there's no denying that he's great in this movie, and he hit the sci-fi trifecta with Apes, Soylent Green, and The Omega Man, all within a few years of each other. And according to the documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes, it was Heston who suggested that Taylor destroy the world at the end of Beneath. He claims that he did it so that he wouldn't have to appear in another sequel, and critics of Beneath have picked up on that claim to argue why the ending was a bad idea. Even if that was Heston's motivation, however, I would still argue that this was a good choice, and we can see that, with the three sequels that followed Beneath, the destruction of the world did not stop the franchise.
I'll have more on Beneath the Planet of the Apes coming up, as I do want to address that film's significant flaws. But to set that up, here's the original trailer:
Link of the Day: I want to point reader's to Hunter's Planet of the Apes Archive, a great resource for Apes research. The site includes scans of the hard-to-find Marvel UK Apes comics, plus (my personal favorite) mp3s of the Power Records adaptations. I can easily get lost in this site for hours.