“Rule the planet”
Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Roth
USAF astronaut Leo Davidson (Wahlberg) works with trained apes aboard the space station Oberon. Attempting to rescue one of his apes, Pericles, during an electromagnetic storm, he crash lands on a strange planet, where he finds a primitive human culture subjugated by intelligent apes. Using his arrival as a catalyst, General Thade (Roth), the leader of the ape armies, launches a massacre of the humans, but the kindly ape Ari (Bonham Carter) tries to help him escape and learn the truth of the planet’s origins.
What’s wrong with it?
In remaking The Planet of the Apes, Burton quite deliberately avoids sticking too closely to either the original novel or to the 1968 adaptation starring Charlton Heston. Unfortunately, what he manages to do is jettison most of the point in favour of dumb action.
In both earlier versions, the apes live almost exactly as humans do, and vice versa; the humans of the planet are literally dumb animals, incapable of speech and devoid of sophisticated facial expression. In the film they still don’t speak, although they do wear clothes. The apes, meanwhile, have mobile, expressive faces and language, as well as an advanced, scientific culture. The point of it all is not that the apes cruelly oppress the humans they falsely cast as inferior, but that they with the positions reversed, they treat the human animals exactly as humans treat apes.
In this version, the humans are obviously intelligent and sophisticated, and Thade’s father (played by Charlton Heston) specifically describes their power as lying in technology and invention, of which apes are incapable. The apes, meanwhile, are animalistic and instinctive, able to craft hand weapons and clothes and domesticate horses, but lacking any actual science. The role of chimp scientists Zira and Cornelius are replaced by equal rights campaigner Ari, replacing the central issue – the treatment of animals – with a far less controversial anti-racist slant.
The film throws away supporting characters pretty much willy nilly; Krull (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa)’s final duel with his errant pupil Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan) is a pitifully one-sided beat down that does nothing to advance either plot or Attar’s character, while Erik Avari as a ‘house human’ (in case we hadn’t got that this is about slavery) is offed with barely anyone noticing.
The normally watchable Wahlberg phones in his performance, including the worst rousing speech before Kristen Stewart in Snow White and the Huntsman, and Estella Warren is completely forgettable as his disposable love interest whatshername. Bonham Carter and Roth turn in game performances as the good chimp and bad chimp, but she is saddled with a bizarre love triangle with Davidson (replacing Zira’s “I’d kiss you, but you’re just so damned ugly”) and he with a series of bad wire-work temper tantrums.
Speaking of which, the apes are saddled with some of the clunkiest wire-work yet seen in a mainstream movie, defying gravity rather than leaping convincingly, as well as displaying superhuman strength well beyond that of an actual ape.
The climactic battle is completely enshrouded in dust, but this is not used to much dramatic effect. That the fight is then ended by the arrival of Pericles’s space pod is a flagrant Zaius ex machina.
The ending, in which Davidson returns to Earth to find it ruled by apes – these ones with cars and guns, but revering Thade as their founding father – is just nonsensical, and yet speaks of a better movie that wasn’t made.
What’s right with it?
The set and costume design is lavish, and the ape actors give polished performances, at least when their feet are on the ground.
How bad is it really?
It’s just a mess, which squanders its platform for social commentary by turning the apes into senseless oppressors. Davidson’s claims of human superiority should come across as racism, but the truth is that the apes in this version of the film are inferior, dominated by instinct and driven by rage and cruelty. Ari’s appearance is notably more human than any other ape – more like the make-up of the 1968 version than that of the others in this movie – which serves only to emphasise the human good, ape bad overtones.
It might not be so bad, but the final scene makes the whole thing so nonsensical that it’s hard to interpret the film as anything but a near-death dream before Davidson’s final plunge into an ape-ruled Hell.
Best bit (if such there is)?
The film is perhaps at its best when calling back to the original (“Get your stinking paws off me you damn, dirty human”, “Damn you all to Hell”), but it’s a reflected glory.
What’s up with…?
- The mighty ape leaps? Apes don’t leap as if they were on wires. They’re also not strong to the point of tossing humans around like rag dolls.
- Attar’s sudden face turn? He kills his mentor and revels in it, but one sight of Pericles and he’s willing to believe everything Davidson says about the arrival of the first apes.
- Ape culture? They build houses, make clothes, forge steel cages, but can’t put together a rudimentary bow and arrow?
Production values – The production, as you’d expect from Tim Burton, is gorgeous, although points off for the laser pistol that turns into an automatic between takes. I presume that the automatic was used as a working blank gun for long shots where the gun had to go off, but it appears in close ups as well. 3
Dialogue and performances – While a number of the actors are giving it their all, Wahlberg and Warren drag the standard way down, and the material only sparkles when riffing from the 1968 film. 14
Plot and execution – The film works hard at putting across a message that doesn’t need to be put across, as no-one who still thinks that rounding up and either enslaving or murdering ethnic minorities is bad is likely to be swayed by a Tim Burton movie, and by going all out it loses any impact on the issues of animal rights or even of the more insidious racism which still affects society. Sadly, at the same time it fails to be an effective movie in its own right. 15
Randomness – Most of the film’s failings are fundamental, but there are a few moments of random failure as well, including a minor sub-plot where a young man tries to prove himself and stuffs it completely, forcing Davidson to abandon his position to save him, as a result of which… well, nothing happens at all. And then there’s the ending; most of these points are for that ending. 10
Waste of potential – The earlier movie was better, the more recent remake was better, and Tim Burton is a good movie maker on his day. This cast, with that director and that basic brief could have made so much more. 16