Pop quiz: What's the most violent, disturbing and pessimistic G-rated movie you can think of?
Some of you are probably thinking, "What's a G-rated movie?" Since very few of them are released these days, your lack of awareness wouldn't come as much of a surprise.
Others might ask, "Why would a G-rated movie be any of those things?" Given the fact that nearly all of the movies from the last several decades to have received a G rating from the Motion Picture Association of America are either innocuous animated films or relatively benign documentaries, your question would seem like a reasonable one.
A few of you might venture forth with suggestions such as the John Wayne Vietnam War adventure THE GREEN BERETS or Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (both 1968). Nice try, but no. The correct answer is BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970). Read on and you'll see why this is not merely my opinion, but a fact.
BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES picks up right where the original left off, with Taylor's shocking realization of his true whereabouts (and whenabouts). Afterward, while riding through the desert with Nova, they both experience a series of frightening visions, which Taylor determines are not real. In the process of investigating the source of these hallucinations, Taylor vanishes. Nova then stumbles upon Brent (James Franciscus), an astronaut who is the sole survivor of another spaceship crash (why these ships are unable to safely land is beyond me). Brent's crew was on a mission to rescue Taylor, and he and Nova set out to find him. They have their own run-ins with the apes, in which there's a WTF moment of chimpanzee scientists Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (David Watson) doing something with a scalpel between the legs of a strapped-down human male - a somewhat more explicit illustration of the castration anxiety from the original. Eventually, they escape and make their way to the subterranean remains of a devastated New York City, allowing Brent his own moment of awful realization. In the underground city, they discover a hive of mutated humans who worship a leftover atomic bomb, and it's at this point that the film takes a seriously dark turn.
These mutants have developed extra-sensory abilities that allow them to communicate telepathically as well as control the minds of lesser humans such as Brent and Nova. They can cause their victims to experience pain, make them see terrifying images and even control their actions. They grill Brent about the intentions of the apes, who are on their way to invade the underground city and conquer the mutants. When he resists giving them information, they force him to simultaneously kiss and strangle Nova into semi-consciousness in a scene that veers uncomfortably close to sexual assault. Horrified at what he's been made to do, Brent gives up the information, and the mutants prepare to launch their atomic missile at Ape City. Brent and Nova are allowed to witness the mutants' religious ceremony in which they sing creepy, jarring hymns to the bomb in a wrecked cathedral. (Composer Leonard Rosenman, taking over for PLANET OF THE APES' Jerry Goldsmith, delivers an excellent score that really hits its disturbing peak with this scene. You'll never hear "All Things Bright and Beautiful" in the same way again). At the climax of the ceremony, they all intone, "I reveal my inmost self unto my God," and proceed to remove the rubber masks they're wearing, giving us a good, long look at their scarred faces. I was probably around 9 or 10 when I first saw the film, and the unmasking really knocked me for a loop. It was easily one of the most alarming things I'd seen in a film up to that point.
While the three of them are en route to stop the bomb from being launched, Nova - the one innocent in this mess - is depressingly shot and killed by an ape soldier. The apes storm the cathedral, slaughtering the mutants who are left (some have taken their own lives, another morbid touch), and pull down the missile from its altar/launch pad, not realizing how much danger they're in. As they try in vain to halt the impending catastrophe, Taylor and Brent are gunned down by the apes. Taylor is still barely alive, but Brent is clearly dead, having gone down in a hail of bullets in a scene that evokes Peckinpah. As he expires, Taylor utters one final imprecation at the apes and detonates the doomsday bomb, and the screen fades to white. Just in case the audience might not believe what just happened, we're treated to this voiceover, which seems pretty definitive: "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 difficult to overstate how bleak this ending is, and how much of an impact it had on me as a kid. Of course, the ending of the original PLANET OF THE APES was shocking, but it pales in comparison to the cold finality of BENEATH. Hollywood was changing at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. Films began to reflect the turbulent times, and downbeat endings, in films such as EASY RIDER and THE WILD BUNCH, were becoming more common. It was no longer a given that the good guys would win, or even survive. BENEATH takes this conceit to the next level. It's almost as though the filmmakers (director Ted Post and screenwriter Paul Dehn) were saying to the audience, "You want a downer of an ending? Try this on for size!" I can only think of a handful of other films made prior to this one in which the world actually, unambiguously comes to an end (WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE springs immediately to mind), and most of them allow for at least some survivors. Not this one (at least, not right away). To add to the overall feeling of hopelessness, the closing voiceover refers to our planet as "insignificant," which is probably how many viewers felt after seeing this film.
Nevertheless, the film was successful enough (especially considering its meager budget) to tempt the studio heads into wanting another sequel, but how to manage that after blowing up the planet and everyone on it? Don't forget, we're dealing with a story of time travel here. That lead to the third film in the series, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971), which is almost as depressing in its own way, but that's another story. As for the G rating, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES and its follow-up were among the last films with truly upsetting content to receive it. Despite the fact that PG-13 superhero movies chock full of gun violence are now considered family fare, it's difficult to imagine a film as overwhelmingly nihilistic as BENEATH being marketed to kids these days.