Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
Following where the previous NASA mission explored in deep space, a spaceship crashes on the same far-off planet, astronaut Brent (James Franciscus), trying desperately to survive. When the ship's commander (Tod Andrews) dies from his wounds, Brent is all alone among the wreckage. Thinking he's alone on this planet, Brent is shocked when a woman rides over the hill on a horse packed with supplies. The woman is Nova (Linda Harrison), and she's clutching the dog tags of Taylor (Charlton Heston) in her hand. Unable to speak, Nova can't communicate what happened to Taylor, Brent only knowing that he's landed on the right planet. Nova takes him to Ape City though, leaving the stranded astronaut stunned at what he's found. Now on the run, Brent and Nova must stay one step ahead of the gorilla army, an invasion planned for the mysterious Forbidden Zone.
Picking up exactly where the original 'Apes' left off, 'Beneath' is an interesting follow-up. Following the immense success of the first movie, Fox Studios went ahead with a sequel that star Charlton Heston wanted nothing to do with. That contract thing though, it gets in the way of what you want to do. Heston agreed to play a small part (he's only on-screen for about 10 minutes) with the demand that one sequel was all there would be. Well, he got his first part of the deal, but there were three more sequels to come. What's the result here? A solid sequel that stays true to the formula laid out by the first one, adding some new layers in the second half of a 95-minute movie. Early on, it feels almost like a scene-for-scene remake -- Brent going through what Taylor did -- but it's the second half that brings the movie up a notch or two.
Replacing Heston in the lead role is Franciscus, a good actor who never became a huge star in film or television. He was a familiar face though who does a solid if unspectacular job as Brent. The biggest issue with the character is what I mentioned earlier, Brent is just too similar to Taylor to really leave his own mark. Still, I liked Franciscus, and Brent does get his chance to step into the spotlight in the final act as we find out what's in the Forbidden Zone. Also returning from the first movie is Kim Hunter as the friendly, helpful intelligent Dr. Zira, Maurice Evans as the cynical, truth-hiding Dr. Zaius, David Watson replacing Roddy McDowall (other obligations) as Cornelius', Zira's husband and fellow scientist. Also joining the cast is James Gregory as General Ursus, the commander of the army who's obsessed with leading an invasion into the Forbidden Zone.
So what exactly is out there, hiding away in the Forbidden Zone? SPOILERS in this paragraph SPOILERS Chased by a squad of gorilla cavalry, Brent and Nova ride into the Forbidden Zone, hiding away in a subterranean cavern that ends up being the subway tunnels underneath New York City. They find a community of mutants who survived the original atomic blasts and now worship a Doomsday bomb that was built strong enough to destroy the world. What to do, what to do? The mutants have no way of protecting themselves while the invading gorilla army intends to wipe out anything they find in the Forbidden Zone. Brent, Nova and Taylor are caught in the middle to look for a solution, however dangerous. Look for Paul Richards as Mendez, leader of the mutants, with Victor Buono, Jeff Corey, Natalie Trundy, Don Pedro Colley and Gregory Sierra his Mutant Cabinent of sorts.
Where 'Beneath' sets itself above the other sequels is in the road the story goes down in the final act. A familiar story up to that point, it takes a big turn....for the better. I don't want to give spoilers away because like the original, the ending resonates more if you're surprised at where it goes. You know me by now, I'm a sucker for a dark, brutally cynical ending. This one sets the bar pretty high, unceremonious in how it knocks off certain characters, the final twist coming and going in a flash. That's it. That's all. Movie over. An underrated sequel for sure, well worth checking out for science fiction fans, especially for fans of the Apes series. Next up, Escape from the Planet of the Apes!
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970): ***/****