Planet of the Apes
review by KJ Doughton, 3 August 2001

"Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty human!"

Anyone who has seen Charlton Heston roaring similar words in the original, 1968 Planet of the Apes will get a solid belly laugh when this slightly revised complaint jumps off the screen during Tim Burtonís stylish, darkly beautiful remake.  Like Jurassic Park 3, Burtonís version of Pierre Boulleís classic sci-fi novel uses self-referential humor to pepper his visually gorgeous, tightly-wound comic book spin. Unlike that other dinosaur-driven blockbuster, however, this film has the stamp of a visionary genius etched over every hairy, flea-bitten inch of it.  As with his earlier films, including Batman, Pee Weeís Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, Ed Wood, and Mars Attacks, you can tell that Burtonís not just in it for a paycheck. He injects a melancholy, detail-driven sense of imagination into Planet of the Apes that makes this ambitious puppy his own.  

Preadolescents sniffing out escapist fodder during the early seventies swore allegiance to director Franklin J. Schaffnerís original  Planet of the Apes and its colorful palette of shaggy simians. There was the cautious, intellectual Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), his bleeding-heart wife Zira (Kim Hunter), the battle-hungry, hotheaded gorilla soldiers, and brooding, snooty orangutan politicians. Like the Star Wars series that would follow, the Apes cast a magic spell as they tormented homo sapiens through five films. Charlton Heston dominated the first movie as an astronaut who landed onto a backward planet where apes, not humans, were the ruling species.  Meanwhile, men, women, and children were lowly, mute cattle to be harvested, caged, and stuffed by simian taxidermists. Beneath the Planet of the Apes visited the underground catacombs of some bomb-wielding mutants, and Escape from the Planet of the Apes had two supersmart chimps traveling to contemporary earth, where they faced initial celebrity and eventual doom within a society governed by humans. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes finished off the series in progressively more forgettable fashion.

And that makeup!  Putty-encrusted actors donning monkey makeup were forgiven the fact that their stiff mandibles never seemed to move in time with the lines, by a generation weaned on Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp. For pre-Industrial Light and Magic times, makeup artists John Chambersí primate alterations were still groundbreaking stuff, not to be upstaged until Rick Baker (who provides state-of-the-art makeup in this outing, as well) turned David Naughton into a growling, snarling Canis lupus in 1981ís An American Werewolf in London.  Growing up in the heyday of Apes fever, I can recall snatching comic books, fanzines, action figures and lunch boxes off retail store racks at the speed of a frisky gibbon chasing a mate from tree to tree. However, my perception changed with adulthood.  Upon more recent dissection, I found the original Apes movie to be overstated and cornball, like a comic book refusing to see itself as a comic book. Some saw the film as a metaphor for race relations.  Others perceived it as a cautionary, post-cold war anti-nuke tale.  I viewed it as a bunch of guys in ape suits taking themselves way too seriously.

Burton, the weirdo genius supreme who adorned Johnny Depp with Freddy Kruegeresque metallic upper extremities in Edward Scissorhands, was a natural choice to resurrect the Apes legacy. He knows that talking monkeys in uniforms are cool in the same way that his other screen heroes, like the caped crusader Batman and the undead comedian Beetlejuice, are cool. All the same, however, Burton also sees the outlandishness of this premise, and succeeds in ways that the first Apes franchise failed by refusing to push for serious social commentary. After all, this is all about talking monkeys in uniforms.

Right from the get-go, the revisited Planet of the Apes charges forth and never gives us time to breathe, with Danny Elfmanís forceful, epic score thrusting things into overdrive.  Mark Wahlberg plays Leo, an astronaut from the future, who is introduced from a space research station where he dutifully trains chimps to navigate pods on missions where human helming of the vehicles would be too risky.  During a frantic electromagnetic storm, Leoís prized monkey is launched from the station by some surly superiors to brave turbulence. "Heís the canary," points out a higher-up to Leo, "and thereís the coal mine."

The stubborn Leo, however, objects to the use of chimps for such perilous expeditions. When the spacebound guinea-pig ape sets his craft adrift and off-target, itís Leo to the rescue. "Never send a monkey to do a manís job," he vents to his supervisors before jumping into his own pod and launching off to save the chimp and its endangered vessel. Itís a doomed mission, however, with Leo soon knocked off course and poised for an emergency landing in the swampy depths of a nearby planetís forested bog.

Escaping from his submerged spacecraft, Leo finds another particularly troubling monkey on his back. Thereís a major manhunt in progress, with a grungy, half-nude colony of humans being systematically brutalized by the barbaric General Thade (Tim Roth). "This one looked at me," the human-hating simian tells Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan), a hefty gorilla who acts as the fierce soldierís right hand man and quickly beats Leo for this unforgivable offense.  Sporting a white goatee and a furrowed, judging brow, Thade looks like a cross between dapper director Martin Scorsese and some satanic high priest. Roth, not one to hide from unsympathetic roles (like Liam Neesonís sword-wielding nemesis in Rob Roy), chews the scenery with psychotic relish.  Like a constipated penguin, Thade throws his weight around with a wobbling, hunched gait and dominates his social circle, which includes Sen. Sandar (David Warner), a political ally whose daughter Ari (Helena Bonham Carter) inflames the soldierís romantic desires.

Unfortunately for Thade,  Ari is sympathetic to humans, so much that when Leo is caged up and prepped to be sold by a fast-talking shyster named Limbo (a hilarious, scene-stealing Paul Giamatti), the radical ape-babe helps him to escape slavery. She also rescues a scruffy family of humans along for the ride, including the patriarchal Karubi (Kris Kristofferson, looking like an over-the-hill Ted Nugent in long hair and loincloth), and his shapely daughter Daena (Estella Warren). 

Itís during this middle section that the true genius of Burton comes to the fore. As in his other works, Burton loves dabbling in the details.  As the heroes scramble back and forth to survive the wrath of human-hating Thade, the screen offers a visual feast of dazzling, demented eye candy. A goofy-eyed orangutan puffs contentedly on an opium pipe from one corner, while a reverse-organ grinder appears in the background, an ape playing the instrument while a "mini-me" sized man collects coins from onlookers. 

There are also some hilarious lines gracing Planet of the Apes. Selling a young human girl to an enthusiastic ape clan interested in buying a "pet", Limbo offers the eager buyers a word of advice: "Get rid of it by puberty.  You donít want a human teenager in the house!" In another scene, a decadent, obese statesman-ape sits down to dinner, his gold-digging wife dressed in all the latest jewelry. "We just got back from a vacation to the rain forest," he boasts to some associates. "I needed to get away from politics."

Planet of the Apes culminates in a rousing desert battle, where age-old secrets are discovered and historical revelations made.  Itís here that one spends some time trying to retrace the filmís steps and decipher its logic.  Good luck.  By the time Leo finds a way to launch himself back to earth and into a completely ludicrous "twist ending", Burton has jettisoned any attempts at rational sense. Youíll either go with it, or feel infuriated by the filmís complete reliance on its visual perfection and neglect of its tattered stab at a plot.

There are other howlers in this nonsensical slab of simian cinema. Warren, in the bimbo role, has absolutely no point other than to shake her bodacious booty. Leo, meanwhile, is a humorless, self-absorbed putz.  Itís a real head-shaker as to why Ari would put herself in harmís way for this rather unsympathetic soul who tells her, after she shows Leo a cruel wound inflicted on her by Thade, "You better go take care of that."  Indeed, on The Planet of the Apes, chivalry really is dead.

Planet of the Apes will get slagged for its lack of any  "serious" subtext, and its contrived, messy storyline. However, it gets major brownie points for its absolutely perfect, live-action comic-book look.  Take it seriously, and be prepared for a disappointment. Admire it as a pulp slice of colorful fantasy fare, and itís the best popcorn movie of the summer.  After all, we are talking about monkeys in uniforms.   

Directed by:
Tim Burton

Starring:
Mark Wahlberg
Tim Roth
Helena Bonham Carter
Michael Clarke Duncan
Kris Kristofferson
Estella Warren
Paul Giamatti

Written by:
William Broyles Jr.
Lawrence Konner
Mark D. Rosenthal

Rated:
R - Restricted
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

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