Planet of the Apes (2001)

D: Tim Burton
S: Mark Wahlberg, Helena Bonham-Carter

Not bad second stab at filming Pierre Boule's novel Monkey Planet, previously made under the title Planet of the Apes in 1968. That film spawned a line of sequels and TV shows which have made its central premise: a planet in which evolution seems to be reversed and apes are the dominant species, is so well known that it has entered popular cultural folklore. Even the ending is now a cliche: the fact that this upside-down world is actually earth in the far future. In 1968 the revelation was a chilling capstone to what became a sci-fi classic. Today it is a gag on The Simpsons. This made a remake a tough assignment for any director, and indeed the project was touted in Hollywood for a long time. Oliver Stone was rumoured to be attached at one point, but the job has fallen to Tim Burton (Sleepy Hollow, Mars Attacks!).

So what do you do with the franchise that seemed to have been done to death? How do you reinvigorate the iconography and find new thematic angles on a twentieth century myth? The script has been written by William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner, and Mark Rosenthal, who take a very different approach to the discursive, often pedantic style adopted by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson in 1968. The original was a heady social allegory which wore its intellectual credentials on its collar. Its central character, played by Charlton Heston, spent more time making speeches about the nature of humanity and human society in simian courtrooms than he did physically battling his captors for his freedom. This version knows that that approach is no longer tenable in the age of hi-octane, nor is it necessary given that everyone knows the general idea by now anyway. So it is more primal, more militaristic, and more confrontational; as befits a society no longer troubled by qualms of conscience about Vietnam and the rise of a youth culture which threatened to overthrow the old order.

In this version, less time is spent wandering about coming to terms with the physical and social landscape than before. The slow exposition of the simian society is no longer necessary, and the scientific speculation about time-travel and light speed with which the original began is now such standard jargon after decades of Star Trek that it has no real narrative value. The pace of the new film is therefore greatly accelerated, bringing astronaut Mark Wahlberg (Boogie Nights, Three Kings) into contact with apes and men relatively quickly once he hits the planet. His attempts to escape are more proactive and less cerebral. He forges alliances, makes enemies, and inadvertently sparks a revolution, but he is just a soldier doing his job: a considerably more conservative character than Heston's rather misanthropic adventurer last time out. This is not a film about what's wrong with humanity, it is about a more traditional type of resourceful human heroism which can overcome any obstacle which celebrates man instead of taking him to task by proxy.

The apes themselves have also undergone significant rethinking. The strict social and intellectual hierarchies by species are gone. Though the gorillas are still militaristic and slightly subservient, they seem to have taken on the religious role previously occupied by the Orang Utans. The chimps meanwhile are not the cuddly scientists and proto-revolutionaries they were. The main villain, General Thade (Tim Roth), is a scheming, vindictive chimp descended from the original sentient ape to whom the creatures trace their lineage. The 'peace and love' function has survived the translation, though this time it is wholly located in the character of Ari, portrayed by Helena Bonham-Carter, a simian senator's daughter who believes humans are treated unfairly. Their society is also a little more believable, more loosely social and less transparently schematic than before. Some new detail on their behaviours is provided, including intra-species mating and dinner party etiquette. There is also less solemnity than before, more physicality (apes leap to and fro with almost total abandon), and enough variance in hairstyle and costume to suggest a living, evolving society instead of a static allegorical framework upon which various precepts can be conveniently placed. Yes they're still a stand-in for human society, but the film is just a little less obvious about it.

The basic rethinking is not bad then, and the fundamental narrative components are present to sustain the superstructure. It is not as thematically rich as before, but this is only to be expected. You can't remake Planet of the Apes, you can just come up with another way of looking at the same story, just as each of the sequel and TV show writers did in the 1970s. The other essential component is of course the make-up effects. In 1968 John Chambers was given a special Honorary Oscar for his stunning creations. Contemporary make-up maestro Rick Baker has brought all of his skills to this film with terrific results. Although the actors in ape costume all seem to have problems forming words with their upper lips, the range of facial expressions is very good, and enough attention is paid to design to create distinctive characters working with the actors' original features. There is also a good range in costume design (by Colleen Atwood) and Rick Heinrichs has come up with some nice touches in production design on the whole which fit in with the Burtonesque look the film on the whole strives to attain.

Burton's career has been spotty of late. With messy indulgences like Mars Attacks! and Sleepy Hollow to make up for, we certainly expected less risks would be taken with Planet of the Apes. In some ways, this is not a bad thing, and the film is efficient while still possessing a level of visual style which matches in with Burton's previous films. Although the jungle imagery is new, there is a certain eerie, gnarled quality to it which works well. It doesn't quite stimulate the imagination the way his best work once did, but it goes about its business without pretension, much like the first episode in the Batman franchise. He certainly has brought at least some sense of personality to the film, although it is not enough to save it from its flaws and elevate it to the authorial pantheon the way even Sleepy Hollow has been.

The latter half of the film is less assured than the first. Several sub-plots peter out or are resovled too quickly and the attempt to subtly explore the dynamics of ape society are more or less abandoned. It comes down to a straight fight between Wahlberg and Roth and their respective armies, which, spectacular though it is, brings back memories of the nonsensical hokum of Battle for the Planet of the Apes rather than Spartacus. Contrivances and conveniences abound and the film more or less loses interest in apes as anything more than an undifferentiated mass threat. It also begins to get more sentimental, and begins to make Wahlberg's character into a messiah. The Romans vs. Christians metaphor becomes more and more pronounced as the film moves towards resolution. It also gets yet more glib about man's superiority over ape (and thus 'good' man's ability to triumph over 'bad'). An attempt to reverse this trajectory with a not-bad climactic twist is unfortunately undermined by a moronic coda.

In a feeble attempt to come up with some sort of equivalent to the original's shocker, an unmotivated, unexplained, and completely unnecessary final twist simply adds to the impression that the writers had literally lost the plot. Unable to really find a way to end it, they panicked and tacked on something which makes no sense and has no business even being there. Burton obviously didn't have the clout or inclination to offer a hand. This ending reeks of studio cowardice, committee thinking, and stinks up the entire movie.

Overall, Planet of the Apes is a solid adventure film. It is well made, reasonably interesting in detail and well performed by a game cast. It is not the head-trip that its predecessor was, but it is also a lot more entertaining. Its sense of humour is also a little less laboured, and the cameo from Charlton Heston turns out to be an important dramatic moment rather than just a wink to the audience. The question is whether or not this is of value to you, and if the lack of sixties solemnity represents the failure of the political imagination of American cinema. Maybe, but though this film has nothing new to say, how many morals can one story have?

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.