Planet of the Apes is a classic. Of course, I’m talking about the original (the Tim Burton remake is another “one good scene” post in the making). There was huge demand for a sequel, one that would expand the story’s world and mythos following that dynamic ending. That didn’t quite happen with Beneath the Planet of the Apes—but it did give us another ending worth talking about.
Let’s talk about the one good scene in 1971's Beneath the Planet of the Apes, the second movie in a five-part series that ran from 1968 to 1973. The sequels differ greatly in quality and reception, but most folks agree that Beneath ranks among the worst in the bunch. It does attempt to thematically explore societal trauma inflicted by the Vietnam War but falls short of its lofty goal. Charlton Heston found every excuse he could not to be involved in the sequel, reducing his starring role to a cameo—one that happened to get all the best scenes and lines. Instead, the story centered around a new character named Brent (James Franciscus), who happened to look and act just like Heston’s Taylor (albeit much less interesting).
Brent and Nova (Linda Harrison) spend most of the movie rummaging around in cave sets, eventually finding the final remnants of New York City and human civilization. Those humans mutated because of the nuclear blast and had psychic powers, and they worshipped a nuclear bomb that they believed would cleanse the world once and for all. We’re here to talk about how their story ends and, really, how the entire Planet of the Apes story came to a crashing halt. In the best scene in the movie.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes ends in a showdown between humans and apes, as Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) and General Ursus (James Gregory) lead an army to invade the last human settlement. The mutants try to set off the nuclear bomb but are thwarted, and at the last minute (literally) Taylor chooses to detonate the bomb because he believes humans and apes are beyond saving. The screen fades to white and the movie ends on a voiceover telling the audience: “In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.”
It’s a stark and surprising ending that will leave you thinking about it long after the movie is over, even as the rest of it may fade from your memory. Here’s why that scene stands out in a film that otherwise fails to live up to its predecessor.
There aren’t many movies that are willing to kill off their main cast, let alone the entire world. If one does, it usually serves an important narrative purpose. Dr. Strangelove ends with Major T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) riding a nuclear bomb as it descends upon the planet. This is the final result of a movie dedicated to the inevitability of mutually assured destruction. Then there’s Avengers: Infinity War, which settled on half of the universe—although that was a cliffhanger we all knew would be resolved in the sequel. Beneath the Planet of the Apes is something else entirely.
The first Planet of the Apes can be grim and fatalistic, with Taylor learning he was on Earth the entire time. But the series usually managed to keep a glimmer of hope, even in the darkest of times. This was true in the later films of the first franchise, and especially in the reboot series that put its focus on Caesar (Andy Serkis). It still held a negative view of humanity and the inevitability of disaster but focused more on the people trying to make things better, even as they continue getting worse.
You wouldn’t know that based on the ending of Beneath, one of the most nihilistic endings in a science fiction movie. In the span of two minutes, it goes from Taylor and Brent trying to reason with the apes and humans to Taylor choosing to destroy the planet because nothing is ever going to change. It’s an ending that seemed to come out of nowhere and wasn’t properly foreshadowed. I can only imagine what it was like, as a Planet of the Apes fan, watching this movie crumble to pieces like this in the final two minutes. I would’ve been flabbergasted! Picture an ending like this happening in 2020. It would be all anyone could talk about.
Brent sucked, okay? He was Taylor Lite and everyone knew it, so it made sense to put the focus on Heston when the film needed him most. Beneath the Planet of the Apes only had Heston for a limited time (plus he only agreed to do the movie if his character was killed off and his salary went to charity), but they used that time to its full potential. The guy knows how to deliver a killer line—in this case, literally. It was choice having the movie end on Heston’s Taylor delivering the final blow with: “It’s Doomsday, the end of the world...you bloody bastard.”
Planet of the Apes was a huge hit for 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios), so it wasn’t long before the idea of a sequel was thrown around, but it faced a lot of issues. Budget cuts, multiple scripts, and the loss of Heston as a leading man. By the end of the pre-production process, studio head Richard D. Zanuck was sick of the whole thing and wanted the series to come to a close. The sequel’s original ending was more akin to Battle for the Planet of the Apes, with apes and humans living side-by-side. This was rewritten to be, well, the one we actually got.
That’s why Beneath the Planet of the Apes concludes with the world being destroyed: Because they didn’t want to make any more of these movies, and figured destroying the world was the surefire way to make sure the Planet of the Apes was gone for good. Well, the joke was on them: Beneath the Planet of the Apes was a success, earning $19 million at the box office off a $3 million budget. There was demand for the series to continue, so Escape from the Planet of the Apes used time travel to bring several of the main characters back to a time before the bomb ever went off. The original series went on for five total films and has since become a global phenomenon—with yet another possible reboot in the works.
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