The current release of the prequel/reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes has had the beneficial effect of seeing a box-set of the Blu-Ray editions of the original five movies being offered for just £15 online, or £3 a film, which was just too irresistible to me to turn down.
Almost at once I re-watched the second of the films, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which I particularly liked as a kid even over the more serious, po-faced and grown-up original film. Unfortunately it turns out that while it works well for a juvenile audience, Beneath is actually a decidedly second-rate film to watch when you’re a grown-up yourself.
The first half is actually very strong: a second astronaut follows in the footsteps of the original film’s Charlton Heston, and has the same sort of culture shock in the process. However the audience are familiar with the ape world concept, so that allows the film to start exploring some more of the ape society’s structure and internal sociopolitical tensions, and these are both interesting and thought-provoking. Unfortunately the film then does indeed go ‘beneath’ the ground, and while it initially gives some arresting images of ruins to compare with the shock ending reveal of the original film, it then rapidly descends into a rather lame underdeveloped and overcooked science fiction tale that has more in common with the third, final and least season of the original Star Trek TV series. And it ends in a curiously nihilistic ending that makes the ending of Blakes’ 7 look a little too frivolous by comparison.
It’s interesting to hear on the film’s decent set of extras that no one liked the ending even when it was made, either. It’s also fascinating to learn just how uncommon the idea of a sequel to a successful movie was at the time. The studio needed to make it to survive financially, but no one expected it to become a hit. Obviously over time the idea of sequels and an entire franchise based on a successful original became the film industry’s Holy Grail – and it started here, folks.
The film’s ending makes the idea that there could be a second sequel – let alone a whole franchise – seem very unlikely. But they managed by making two of the apes, Zira and Cornelius, the focus. As it went on Roddy McDowell became the star of the show in the latter role, which makes it odd indeed when you eventually realise that he doesn’t appear in this second film at all except for archive footage from the first; it’s some way in before you realise that it’s no longer McDowell under the ape make-up as Cornelius here but rather a very creditable impersonation by the little-known David Watson instead.
As for the Blu-Ray disc itself, you can hardly expect a film of 41 years ago to sparkle with detail and clarity like a new-born Pixar. But nonetheless I was very impressed indeed by the vibrancy of the colour, the depth and the very “modern” feel that the new hi-res transfer had bestowed on it in a print that looked pretty much immaculate to me. Inevitably this makes some back-projection FX sequences stand out poorer than they did before, and some of the sets are revealed as looking very artificial, but that’s simply always the case with films of this sort of age.
If the rest of the boxset is of this sort of quality, then it’s a most excellent way to spend £15 for over 10 hours worth of entertainment.