Planet of the Apes (2001)

Tim Burton’s singular cinematic vision is very much missing from Planet Of The Apes, his eagerly-awaited remake of the 1968 cult classic.

Part sci-fi, part action-adventure, part ape/human romantic melodrama, but not particularly satisfying on any of these levels, it’s a truly mediocre picture that suffers in several departments: a pallid performance by Mark Wahlberg, who again proves he’s neither a charismatic star nor a commanding actor; confused storytelling confined by the PG-13 rating; lack of genuine dramatic momentum; a “twist” ending that’s disappointing but almost guarantees a sequel; and a mish-mash of visual styles that’s uncharacteristic of Burton’s former work.

As close as a movie ever gets to being critic-proof, 20th Century Fox’s $100m mid-summer release should enjoy a strong opening (even stronger than Jurassic Park III’s last weekend), resulting in mega-blockbuster figures, both domestically and internationally. Planet Of The Apes should benefit from having the whole field for itself, with no major competition.

The premise of Pierre Boulle’s novel, Planet Of The Apes, upon which both the original and this picture are based, has become not only one of the most recognized, but also one of the most provocative concepts in the canon of sci-fi fiction and cinema. Accordingly, a pilot crash-lands on a strange planet, finding himself in a brutal place where tyrannical apes are in control and humans are hunted and enslaved by them. Back in 1968 (the same year that saw the release of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), Boulle’s premise had socio-political relevance due to the zeitgeist, highlighting as it did issues of race, class, and gender.

In the current times, however, the premise has lost its novelty and immediacy, which may explain the desperate nature of the story, credited to William Broyles Jr. (who scripted the terrific Tom Hanks adventure, Cast Away), with additional help from Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, who wrote the screenplay for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, among others.

Burton goes out of his way to prove that his Planet is not a straight remake, but rather a revisiting of that world and a re-imagining of the mythology surrounding the novel and the 1968 picture and its four sequels. But to what effect The producers may think they have a “fresh” story dealing with the same basic idea — an upside world where apes are in charge and humans are subservient — but except for the central axiom, many of the thematic elements and characters are new. For starters, in sharp departure from the original, the human residents in Burton’s movie speak (perhaps too much).

Set in 2029, the movie begins in a research center, where Captain Leo Davidson (Wahlberg) is introduced as an astronaut dedicated to his mission. Defying authority, he takes his spaceship in search for a missing chimp and crashes on a strange planet. Soon after he’s tracked down by fearsome apes on horseback, led by Attar (The Green Miles Duncan), the silvery gorilla-captain of the army. Attar is loyal to his “spiritual” leader, Thade (Roth), a tyrannical general, who favours exterminating all the human pests because they “breed quickly and spread terrible diseases.” British actor Roth plays him as a blue-blood warrior-mobster chimp who holds that politicians, such as senator Nado, just get in the way of how the world should be run.

If the fascist Thade is the villain of the piece, Ari (Bonham Carter, pictured above) is its heroine, a passionate, independently-minded human rights activist, who believes in co-existence of all species. As in the original, social class plays a crucial role: Ari is an upper-class chimp of liberal persuasion, disgusted by the way the humans are treated as slaves and pets. To complicate matters, Thade is attracted to Ari, though her heart goes to Davidson. Other new roles include an orangutan slave-trader, Limbo (Giamatti), who later finds himself on the run for his life and bonds with Davidson, and Daena (Warren) and her father Karubi (Kristofferson), noble humans beaten down by the apes’ rule.

Davidson’s sudden appearance on the planet causes havoc and disorder. Alien to the present system and unaffected by its oppression, Davidson ultimately serves as heroic symbol to the enslaved and hunted humans, soon becoming a challenge to the status quo and a catalyst for a revolutionary social change. Indeed, the yarn is structured as an escape to freedom by a culturally diverse group that includes both humans and apes. New to the saga is a full-on ape versus man battle, with simians on all fours outracing horses.

Most disappointing of all is Burton’s inability to bring his visionary, iconoclastic sensibility to the kind of material that on the surface seems perfect for him. Planet’s denizens should have been a fertile ground for a director who has dealt with the animal-human dichotomy before, populating his pictures with Penguin, Catwoman, Batman, and eccentric outsiders like Johnny Depp (the quintessential Burton actor) in Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood.

Nonetheless, intrigued as he must have been with the upside-down world of the ape planet, Burton is unable to find the core of the story, resulting in a patchwork of a movie that changes tone and visual mode from one sequence to another. Intense pressures to make the movie ready for its long-set July 27 release partly account for the hodgepodge script, which was in flux during shooting and is now hampered by a surprise but muddled ending that will raise many eyebrows.

Only a director with a wild imagination, which Burton certainly possesses, would cast a lightweight like Wahlberg in the macho role that the usually stiff Charlton Heston played so well. In a nod to film history, the new movie pays homage to Heston, who, having played the lead, here has a cameo as a dying ape. With his boyish look and tiny voice, Wahlberg never dominates the screen, again showing that he’s not cut to be a star, but a secondary character in an ensemble piece, as some of his best performances (Boogie Nights, Three Kings, Perfect Storm) have been.