A sequel to the 1968 masterwork was wholly unnecessary--much less four of them. On the bright side, the sequels eventually became the basis for perhaps the most intelligent blockbuster franchise of the 2010s (and likely beyond). Upon reviewing it with a more critical perspective, the decline in quality here is far more apparent. It does however find redeeming qualities in its allegories surrounding the Vietnam War, even if a little less subtle than its already blunt predecessor.
But at least it was short!
Beneath the Planet of the Apes was directed by Ted Post, and is rather unabashedly a studio movie (made by studio executives for profit as opposed to being made by genuinely inspired filmmakers). The film begins by recycling the last few minutes of the first installment, which partially justifies itself through an extended sequence intended to establish continuity, but for the most part is just lazy.
This film doesn't have the directorial flair of the first. There is little to no buildup for the reveal or journey to Ape City, and we are thrust into the world again without much craft or care. The cinematography is often shaky or awkward, and the action sequences feel uninspired and obligatory. Even the shots of Ape city don't show the scope that the original achieved, I suspect because they didn't rebuild the whole set for budgetary reasons. That being said, the sets in much of the rest of the film are very strong: especially the gorilla training grounds and the subterranean environments--in which the cinematography becomes better, if still not great. Thankfully, it won't beat you over the head excessively with its pitfalls thanks to its quick pacing.
The screenplay for this film saw the departure of Rod Serling and Michael Wilson, now written by producer Mort Abrahams and receiving treatment by Paul Dehn (who would fill the writer's role for the remainder of the original series). It's never a good sign when producers or studio executives start to write your films, but Dehn did a serviceable job considering. While the screenplay has substantial flaws, it also contains the most redeeming qualities of the film.
The most noticeable disparities in screenplay quality were the story and characters. For example, here's a short quote that sums up the role of James Franciscus' Brent: "We loved Taylor." Charlton Heston made it clear he didn't want to return, and though he has cameos that bookend the film, Brent was basically a "discount Taylor". Franciscus however plays a more sympathizable character, which is relayed to us by showing him nursing the other astronaut after the crash. Though less interesting and layered than Taylor (who was a study on existentialism and ego), Brent is more likable (albeit generic), and hence easier to follow.
There's a very notable and very questionable plot decision as well. The mutants could easily have had just made an illusion that covered up the entrance to their hiding place, and the apes would've never found them. Instead, they're daft enough to intentionally create a provocative image, which not only angers the apes, but confirms and gives away their existence. Hence endangering them. Hence destroying the world. I do however like the guts the movie has at the end. It's ambitions didn't always pan out, but at least it didn't shy away from tragedy, which is a tradition that has stuck (thankfully) for much the rest of the franchise.
There's a nice portrayal of hypocrisy in the film, which becomes a theme in the Vietnam War allegory. An instance of this is Zaius telling Cornelius "Let us have no violence", as he prepares to march out with an army equipped to fight the unknown. As dumb as the mutants are, they serve a role in an excellent satire of religion and violence--specifically pertaining to the Vietnam War. There is a noticeable emulation of Vietnam War protest rallies as the troops are marching out, as those in power ignore the civilians' outcry of a pointless war. It is clear that the apes do not really know who the enemy is, and though they won't admit it to themselves, what they are even out there for. The mutants manipulate and use their "weapons of peace" at a distance while others get hurt, yet are spared much of the blame, just like the American government. A quote from Cornelius sums up the theme of powerlessness: "How can we take initiative when they (the Ape Council) hold(s) all the power?" There is also a juxtaposition between the worship of the Apes' Lawgiver and the mutants' Alpha- Omega Bomb, expressing thoughts of religious intolerance and more.
The performances in this installment aren't at their strongest. Linda Harrison is shaky, and the part where she speaks at the end is dumb and breaks basic continuity. Roddy's replacement as Cornelius (now played by David Watson) is noticeably different, and easily the lesser portrayal. There is a degree of quirkiness and charm missing from Watson's version. James Franciscus is inoffensive in his role, and Heston is still playing Heston. Kim Hunter and Maurice Evans are easily the highlights of the film, and maintain their characters' depth.
Notice the pullover masks they used in the film due to budgetary restraints, and how obnoxiously noticeable and laughably bad they were. The mutant makeup is OK, though not as impressive as Chamber's ape prosthetics. Finally, the score by Leonard Rosenman emulates Goldsmith's rather well, and manages to be competent and serviceable to the film even if it lacks a degree of Goldsmith's charm and memorability.
Though this is one of the weakest points in the franchise, this feature is not completely irredeemable, and thankfully still isn't the franchise at its worst. The social commentary maintains a base level of intelligence that makes it worth viewing for fans of the series. Unlike its predecessor however, this is not essential viewing.
Review by Sparse from the Internet Movie Database.