Planet of the Apes (2001)
Screenplay : William Broyles Jr. and Lawrence Konner & Mark D. Rosenthal (based on the novel by Pierre Boulle)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Mark Wahlberg (Leo Davidson), Tim Roth (General Thade), Helena Bonham Carter (Ari), Michael Clarke Duncan (Attar), Kris Kristofferson (Karubi), Estella Warren (Daena), Paul Giamatti (Limbo), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Krull)
Tim Burton's "reimagining" of Planet of the Apes is not particularly good science fiction, but it is a well-crafted, atmospheric action movie that pits humans against simians in a battle for supremacy. What is ultimately disappointing about Burton's film is not what he has brought to the movie, but what he has left out, namely any sense of the artistry and unique voice that one would expect from something bearing Burton's imprimatur.
In what marks his most strident move toward the dead-center of mainstream moviemaking, Burton's version has excised almost all of the socio-political context that made the original movie so fascinating and pared it down to a series of action setpieces. It's entertaining and exciting, sure, but when it's over, it's hard to justify the remake, er, "revisit," beyond the improvements in make-up special effects and computer-generated imagery.
The story sticks fairly close to the original, at least in its preliminary set-up. In the near-distant future, a U.S. Air Force pilot named Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) is caught in an electrical storm in space and hurtled forward in time where he crash-lands thousands of years in the future on a remote planet where talking apes rule and humans are slaves. The apes have a thriving, yet rustic society that has complex social dimensions, yet no advanced technology.
Davidson is immediately captured along with a group of other humans who are all dressed liked Neanderthals, although, unlike the original, they have the capacity to speak. He meets the group's leader, Karubi (Kris Kristofferson), and his daughter, Daena (Estella Warren). We are then introduced to the two main ape characters, who stand on opposite poles of the ideological spectrum. On one end is the near-fascist military general Thade (Tim Roth), who snarls and grunts about human inferiority and how they should all be simply wiped out. On the other hand is the progressive, liberal Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), who believes that humans and apes are equal and should live together in peace. Ari is nearly alone in her sentiments, though, and it is only because her father is a powerful senator and Thade is in love with her that she has not been arrested. Other key ape characters include Paul Giamti's Limbo, a wonderfully sniveling slave trader who serves as the movie's comic relief, and Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan), Thade's hulking second-in-command gorilla.
Most of the narrative leads up to a massive battle between the humans and the apes, once word gets out that Davidson has stood up to the ruling simians. He is a reluctant leader, to be sure, more interested in getting back to his own time and place than being a military leader in a human uprising. Yet, like all reluctant leaders in the movies, he does eventually lead, although a few plot twists near the end greatly complicate his mission and his purpose.
This new version of Planet of the Apes is certainly a handsome production. One of the most visually breathtaking additions is the fast and fluid way in which the physically superior apes move, leaping dozens of feet in the air and hurtling along the ground on all fours. Production designer Rick Heinrichs (Sleepy Hollow), art directors John Dexter and Sean Haworth, and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Interview With the Vampire) have collaborated to create a brilliantly realized distant world where the ideas of apes ruling is entirely conceivable. One of Burton's primary strengths as a director has been his command of atmosphere, and this movie gives him something new to sink his teeth into, even if it isn't as showy as the primal forests of Sleepy Hollow (1999) or the Gothic urban cityscape in Batman (1989).
Yet, one of Burton's other primary strengths, his ability to work with quirky and offbeat characters, is terribly under-utilized, thus sapping the movie of both a real authorial voice and a central character worth caring about. Wahlberg's hero is the very essence of bland vanilla--there's no meat to the character, nothing you can grab on to. He simply fills a character spot--lone Earth man stranded on a future planet ruled by apes--and nothing more.
Wahlberg's character is emblematic of what has happened to the entire movie compared to the original. The central character of the 1968 version was a bitter misanthrope played with over-the-top intensity by Charlton Heston. Heston's George Taylor was a deeply problematic character, but one whose fundamental and flawed human traits were inexplicably tied to the movie's deeper thematics, not to mention its narrative drive. It was crucial that Taylor be a misanthrope, because this was what raised the infamous discovery at the end of the movie above any cheap irony and turned it into a nerve-rattling proclamation about the fate of humankind--exactly the stuff that great science fiction is made of.
Burton's Planet of the Apes gives us not one, but two revelatory moments at the end, one of which is well-written and serves a purpose, the second of which makes absolutely no sense and is obviously nothing more than a bid to top the original. Screenwriters William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner, and Mark D. Rosenthal never seem to develop a coherent purpose for the movie--they have some good ideas, a few retained from the original movie, as well as its many sequels, yet they never make it gel.
There are a few moments near the beginning when it seems that they are moving the story into a more explicit racial allegory, complete with an allusion to Rodney King's plea of "Can't we all just get along?" Yet, this whole dimension is dropped like a stone halfway through and never revived. The same goes for the religious dimension, which was the strongest thematic element of the original movie. There are a few lines referring to the apes' religious beliefs and one moment in which an ape mocks the idea that a human could have soul, yet the brilliantly sustained critique of religious dogmatism that fueled the original movie is nowhere to be found, and nothing has been inserted in its place.
So, with no real thematic depth or allegorical implications, one has to watch Planet of the Apes for what it is: an expensive action movie with a biological twist.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick