Alas, the insightful subtexts of Planet of the Apes don’t exactly carry over into its clunky first sequel. Following the haunting, loaded ending of the first film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) attempts to dig a little deeper (literally, har har) into the series’ world-building, but doesn’t do so with much sophistication. This time out, the astronaut hero is Brent (James Franciscus), a newly arriving traveler who followed on the first expedition’s heels only to meet a similar fate, crash-landing in the planet’s “forbidden zone.” Searching for the lost Taylor (Charlton Heston), Brent instead befriends the mute human Nova (Linda Harrison), who is wearing Taylor’s dog-tags. Together, with the help of human-friendly chimpanzees Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), they elude the increasingly martial ape society and attempt to find Taylor. Their quest leads them to discover a subterranean realm where the last vestiges of a far-future humanity reside, worshipping the very technology that destroyed the world.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes makes a nod toward the sociopolitical commentary that made the original film interesting, mostly through the infighting of the ape society, where scientists and protesters face off against a bombastic, militant new leader named General Ursus (James Gregory). The film is charged through with the era’s angst around impending nuclear oblivion. But mostly this is just a simplistic, silly adventure, which feels even more than the first one like a thinly veiled western. (Indeed, one can imagine the series as a strategic repurposing of the film-making infrastructure of the slowly dying western genre.) It does have a certain comfort-food appeal, but mostly it feels like a weak episode of an old-fashioned TV show, with an abrupt and unsatisfying ending.