Planet of the Apes
Planet of the Apes

USA, 2001. Rated PG-13. 120 minutes.

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Helena Bonham Carter, Tim Roth, Paul Giamatti, Michael Clarke Duncan, Kris Kristofferson, Estella Warren, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, David Warner, Luke Eberl, Erick Avari, Evan Dexter Parke, Lisa Marie, Charlton Heston
Writers: William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal, based on the novel by Pierre Boulle
Music: Danny Elfman
Cinematographer: Philippe Rousselot
Producer: Richard D. Zanuck
Director: Tim Burton


Grade: C Review by Carlo Cavagna

The lights have dimmed and the lengthy parade of advertisements and previews is finally over. Danny Elfman's score begins, typically gothic and murky, but uncharacteristically underpinned by complex drum rhythms, suggesting an otherworldly tribal setting. It accompanies Tim Burton's dark images of forbidding, inhuman swords and helmets covered with arcane glyphs and runes. You're in Burton's world now, and it's obvious that this will be a wild ride.

Turns out, you're wrong. There's no doubt about it--the movie looks and sounds fantastic. But beyond that, it never delivers on the promise of the ominous opening titles. Sure, Planet of the Apes is entertaining on a shallow, summer-movie level. If you can lie back, relax, and let Burton's aggressively imagined visuals and Elfman's music wash over you without thinking too hard about what you're watching, you're likely to leave the theater reasonably content. But if you're a cranky critic who gets irritated by films that fail to live up to their potential, you'll leave the theater dissatisfied.

After the titles, Burton takes us aboard a space station in the near future, where Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) trains chimpanzees to fly reconnaissance space pods. He just LOVES the little rascals! When one of them is lost in a magnetic storm, he immediately takes off in his own tiny pod, against orders and all common sense, to attempt a rescue. After jumping through a time vortex, the pod ends up crash landing on a strange planet ruled by chimps and gorillas who keep humans as slaves. Oh, the irony!

Excuse me if I'm not impressed. In the original Planet of the Apes, Colonel George Taylor (Charlton Heston) was a misanthrope who became a deep-space astronaut to minimize contact with his own race. But he must fight for his entire race against the apes--despite the fact that his distaste for humanity has some validity, given that it has blown itself to pieces, as he discovers at the end. Is humanity even worthy of freedom? The last shot of the original Apes, with the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand on a desolate beach, is one of the most enduring images of science-fiction cinema. Now that's irony.Tim Roth as Thade

Burton's Apes attempts serious commentary as well, namely, a ham-handed indictment of slavery and racism. Racism remains entrenched all over the world, but it's not as if the notion that slavery is wrong is the least bit provocative. Though an action/adventure film, the original Apes was a biting satire. Released in 1968, when the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, when the United States was embroiled in a war in Vietnam and an arms race with the Soviet Union, and when social unrest had sharply divided American society, the original Apes was very much a political film, and a product of its era. The original Apes took on racism, too, but it also attacked establishment complacency and foresaw a future in which humanity destroys itself.

Thanks to Burton's imagination, the remake features a more richly conceived ape society. Burton integrates ape behavior with human behavior to create a more credible ape civilization than the original film, in which the apes possessed fewer ape-like traits. But fashioning a plausible "ape society" wasn't really the original film's goal. Its interest was to hold a mirror up to humanity and reflect our worst traits back at us. The remake doesn't do that, because we do not recognize as much of ourselves in the ape society and its exaggerated villains.

Moreover, by moving the story off Earth, Burton has removed the post-apocalyptic element. By allowing the human slaves to retain their ability to speak (which they could not do in the original), Burton opted not to create a pure role reversal. Although the film makes a statement for animal rights, the lack of a pure role reversal limits the effectiveness of the indictment. The fact that humans can communicate with the same sophistication as the apes renders the apes' assumption that humans do not possess consciousness or a soul somewhat incredible and over-the-top.

Finally, by replacing the jaded Colonel Taylor with a doofus who goes charging into a cosmic magnetic storm in a sardine can, Burton deprives us of a strong hero. Heston's performance hasn't aged well, primarily because he himself has become a bit of a joke, but there is no doubt that audiences identified him with larger-than-life characters. In contrast, Mark Wahlberg is a smaller-than-life blank space. Who decided this guy was a movie star anyway? He's okay as long as he's playing dim bulbs or patsies, like in Boogie Nights and The Yards, but he is most decidedly not a forceful, charismatic lead. He exhibits all the magnetism of a petrified lump of dinosaur dung. One wonders what any of the other characters see in him. Of course, his love interest, Deanna, played with equal vapidity by model Estelle Warren, is even more of a void.

Fortunately, the rest of the acting is superb, and by itself provides a reason to see Planet of the Apes. To realize his apes, Burton employs six-time Oscar-winning makeup designer Rick Baker (How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Men in Black), who should be a shoo-in for a seventh. Even more effective, he casts first-rate actors to wear that makeup. Tim Roth (Pulp Fiction) as the wicked General Thade; Helena Bonham Carter (Fight Club) as human sympathizer Ari; Micheal Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile) as Thade's lieutenant Attar; the normally villainous Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Mortal Kombat) as stoic former general Krull; David Warner (Titanic) as Senator Sandar; and the ubiquitous Paul Giamatti (Man on the Moon) as slave-trader Limbo are uniformly outstanding. Their performances shine through the barrier of the ape suits to make you see each as an individual. Makeup or no, they are all quite recognizable, particularly Giamatti and his comic relief. Meanwhile, Carter infuses her character with an almost sexual attraction to the human hero, a welcome bit of complexity that was not in the original film. Watch also for a hilarious cameo by Heston as a human-hating ape, one of several references to the original film.
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Apes' thematic deficiencies would be more forgivable if it had a gripping story. But it doesn't. As the thematic simplifications (Slavery bad! Freedom good!) and the removal of the darker aspects of the protagonist's personality suggest, Planet of the Apes adheres faithfully to the summer-movie formula. Protagonist is captured by villains, and in captivity, protagonist meets scantily clad love interest who can't act. Protagonist fights villains against increasingly overwhelming odds, until protagonist is saved by writers' contrivances at end. Roll credits.

Although a great visual artist, Tim Burton has never been known for his storytelling ability. His films, including Edward Scissorhands, Batman, Batman Returns, and Sleepy Hollow, tend to have plot holes deeper than the Mariana Trench. One unavoidably concludes that Burton doesn't give a rat's patootie about plot, beyond its use as a vehicle for his imagery and style. In the case of Apes, it appears as if Burton was all-too-willing to accept the studio's formula, as long as he could do what he wanted with sets, makeup, and costumes. Apes delivers escapist thrills effectively enough, and the fruits of Burton's imagination are almost always worth seeing on the big screen, but don't go expecting anything intelligent.

Like the original Apes, Burton goes for a shock at the very end too, but it's more for laughs than provocative. And it makes almost no logical sense--that is, unless the logic is, "We want to remake the sequels, too." The success of the original Planet of the Apes led to four mediocre sequels that strained logic and, ultimately, endurance. They were not a good idea. It's hard to imagine they are any better an idea now than they were thirty years ago.

Review © August 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Fox and its related entities. All Rights Reserved.

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