The Planet of the Apes – Original, Sequels, and as Remade by Tim Burton
by Barry Meyer
Tim Burton, like a maniacal monkey, flings crap on the screen.
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Films have lost their magic. And I blame it on Star Wars. Well, not exactly, but I’ll use it as a reference point.
I am not a fan of the blockbuster special FX movie. I don’t think I really ever was either, which is surprising since I grew up craving every creature feature and adventure sci-fi flick I could bulge my feasting eyes upon. The simple difference between then and now? No more magic. Nowadays we’d sooner look behind the curtain to unveil the magicians trick, rather than watch it. We no longer believe in magic.
The line between then and now, for me, was drawn when Star Wars came out. With all the press and exposure that the film received before the actual release, which told every little secret, and revealed every little bit of trickery, the less magical the film became for me. From there on in, much to my dismay, filmmakers became all consumed with outdoing the last one, and creating the next blockbuster hit. The F/X became more abundant, and then they got bigger, and then better, and more sophisticated, until “making a film” no longer meant presenting a story, but designing a technically visual display.
With this increased use of technology in the movies comes this ridiculous notion that today’s audiences have become too “sophisticated”, and need to be challenged more. On the contrary, the audience of these blockbusters have become more dumb, and less pragmatic, needing every little bit of detail in the story laid out before them in order for them to understand. Or maybe that is just how the audience is perceived by the film’s makers, since they are the ones presenting the dumbed-down stories. Either way these blockbuster special FX films have become merely colorfully explosive pieces of eye candy that present not a solitary challenge to it’s audiences.
The king of the hill, who reigns over this vast heap of wondrous and trifling films, is Tim Burton (at least for now he is, and who knows who will be next, maybe Sam Raimi with his upcoming Spiderman) with his remake—or re-telling, or re-imagination, or whatever silly term he wants to put on it—of Planet Of The Apes. The burning question is—why did the original Planet Of The Apes need to remade? Yes, movie technology is far more advanced than it was back in the 60’s, and we can utilize more impressive bits of trickery than we could back then. But making something bigger, and more fantastic does not mean that it’s been improved upon. And if you can’t improve upon a classic, just leave it alone.
The original Planet Of The Apes came out at a sedately tumultuous point in our country’s modern history. Middle class America was settled in quite contently in their suburban homes, with their 2.5 kids and a shiny new automobile in the drive that took mom to the grocery store, and to her bridge club, and took dad to his job, and the local Elk’s Club. Everything they needed was nestled into their beautiful bucolic neighborhoods, and they needn’t worry about what lies beyond their elm-lined streets. But the TV news brought in the upsetting reality of the rest of the world through images of the racial tensions that played out violently on city streets, and even more horrible were the pictures of a ravaging war that our young men were fighting in a foreign country. Going to the lush movie theater to see some great adventures seemed to be a viable escape from all the madness that had invaded our self-satisfied lives.
It was at the movies that some of society’s superficial walls began to crumble. The more magnanimous side of Hollywood was putting out films that subtly asked Americans to ponder some important social questions by using this perfect blend of action, adventure, drama and comedy, mixed with relevant social satire or commentary. The audience was presented with issues without being preached to, or even asked to respond to. Planet Of The Apes (1968) was one of these pictures.
Planet Of The Apes (as well as the entire Planet of the Apes saga) was a timely tale, speaking on issues such as race relations and tensions, and war. It is also a timeless tale with a foretelling of a dismally allegorical future that could befall mankind if it didn’t shape up. And can you believe all of this was packed into one of the most exciting and fun sci-fi films of all time? The primary accomplishment of these Ape films is their ability to appeal to the audience on both an aesthetic level, and an intellectual level. You rarely ever see that in big Hollywood films anymore.
On the other end of the spectrum is Tim Burton’s Planet Of The Apes (2001), a most ponderously ineffective film. This film is surely a sign of it’s time as well, demonstrating how Hollywood (and many non-Hollywood), as well as pop culture America, has become all too obsessed with their gadgetry and trinkets, and making gobs of money. Blockbuster movies merely became a show-and-tell of the latest technological trickery. Burton is obviously in love with making striking imagery, and he does it probably better than anyone else out there. The problem with all this is that the audience is overpowered with it. Instead of bringing the audience into the fanciful world that’s been displayed, they are left standing outside of it, gawking at it with wonderment of the great spectacle. They marvel at the system of technology, speculating on how the FX were achieved, and as a result they have become removed from the story.
I can’t question the obvious and fantastic achievement of the make-up that Rick Baker has created. But the same effect was conjured up in the seemingly primitive monkey masks of the original. Today some will call the original ape make-up cheesy or unconvincing, a claim that is highly unfair and slight. Back in ‘68 it was abundantly capable of holding the audiences attention more than enough to believe in the story, and that’s what it was meant to do. If it seems cheesy it’s only in the comparisons of techniques, one being more advanced than the other. Were we not still fully immersed in the story though, despite the obvious make-up?
There’s a term that was pounded into the heads of every film student in every film school—suspension of disbelief. That’s a scholar’s fancy way of saying that a successful film will draw the audience into it’s world, making them believe through character and imagery that the fictitious world within the movie is convincingly real. Burton seems to have taken this task much too heartily, and entirely out of context. His idea, as well as every other blockbuster director, of suspending disbelief is to spend millions of dollars on technology that will visually demonstrate what their world would look like it were real. Nevermind bringing the audience into that world. It doesn’t matter if all the actors slaved away endless hours learning to walk like a monkey, or that the make-up people tied the actors down for hours so that they could place intricate hair plugs into the masks—if you don’t have a story to tell, then all the gadgetry is merely a big display. And film is more than just a display. It’s a device to tell a story.
Instead of spending months on the technical gimmicks, they should have spent a couple more weeks on the script. If they had they could have smoothed out the cavernous gaps in the plot, and developed a character or two. The character of Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) is an obvious attempt to conjure up the misanthropic astronaut, Lt. Taylor (Charlton Heston), from the ‘68 original. Profoundly disenchanted by society’s complacent attitudes, Taylor volunteers for a dangerous space mission solely to escape Earth. It is his belief, or rather his hope, that there must be something out there that is “better than man.” What he finds is an unfriendly world were apes rule over humans, using them for experiments, and keeping them in check. Taylor soon finds that he is the reluctant hero, trying to escape the apes and to save the human race that he at once despised. Heston brilliantly portrays Taylor’s cynicism with growling angst, allowing his dichotomous struggle to save mankind to essentially rip him apart at the seams. Wahlberg’s portrayal of the reluctant hero, rather, is void of any of Taylor’s motives, or any motive for that matter. Leo’s emotional torments have him sitting in the dilapidated spaceship’s chair and muttering the all too obvious “It’s my fault. I created this mess!” Wahlberg hasn’t yet expanded on the great job he did in Boogie Nights, but it’s Burton’s fault for not giving the guy at least some direction or emotional background. Leo Davidson’s only drive was to get his chimp and get off the planet, that’s all there was to his character. So Wahlberg had nothing to do but to react to the moments of action.
Burton needed to do more than to create the awesome outward appearance of his ape world, he needed to give it some history, and to give his characters some depth. Everything that was said or shown was simply there to move the characters to the next action sequence. Things just happened. When it was time to fight, the once docile humans had become suddenly savvy in the art of making weapons, and quite proficient horse-riders. How? Who knows. Nothing seemed to matter other than the understanding that apes hate humans. This hatred appeared to be so fiery that the apes lived their daily lives in a militant fervor. Why? Why would a society that has no war, or has no visibly dangerous enemy be so militant? What are they fighting for, or against? Why do they live their daily lives dressed in armor, in fear of attack? The USA is the strongest world power with many enemies, yet we don’t stroll the streets in military garb. Certainly the apes can’t be fearful of the passive humans, who are so docile that they can’t figure their way out of a tied knot (literally!). There’s another mind-boggler—why are these humans, who are perfectly capable of speech and communication, unable to do simple things, like, say—untie a knot!!?
What Burton and his writers did instead of creating their own ape world with their own fleshed out characters was to lazily rely on the previous Ape film history. This is a huge faux pas because this new Ape film is supposed to be a “reimagining” of the original. If this was a sequel to the original Ape saga, then it would be fine to rely on the original history. But, Burton has stated clearly that this movie stands on it’s own, and is not a remake or a sequel.
It turns out that this new Ape movie has not a leg of it’s own to stand upon. To understand this movie you would need to have seen the original saga. To understand why Ari (Helena Bonham Carter) would even dare think to side with humans, you’d have to first understand her Ape movie predecessors, Zira and Cornelius, who through scientific and archeological discoveries had come to question the humans role in their world; or you’d have to understand how Caesar (in Conquest Of- and Battle For The Planet Of The Apes) questions if apes have the right to dominate humans. To find some reason why General Thade simply loathes the humans you’d have to have been party to Taylor and Dr. Zaius’ evolutionary conversations in the original; or have witnessed Gen. Ursus’ rage over the scavenging humans who ruin the land (Beneath The Planet Of The Apes); or have felt Gen. Aldo’s disdain for the lowly humans who have come to be ape’s equal (Battle For The Planet Of The Apes). To fathom Daena’s (Estella Warren) puzzling romantic grasping and smooching of Leo, you’d have to have known about Nova’s tender relationship with Taylor. And without the original movie the disappointing use of the familiar Ape movie lines “Get your stinking (hands) off me!” or “Damn them!” would mean absolutely nothing. Why not make up their own memorable dialogue? If Burton was so determined to make his own original Ape movie, then he should have thought more carefully about creating it on his own world. Without the original Planet Of The Apes saga, this new Ape movie is nothing.
The only character in the new Ape movie that seems to have been created outside the original film is Limbo (Paul Giamatti). But hold your applause, Limbo is equivalent to what Jar Jar Binks is to The Phantom Menace—an annoyance. Why is it that an ape in a far off world, in a distant galaxy, so removed form our own, is speaking like he’s on TRL, having a rap session with MTV’s Carson Daly? What is it with writer’s egos that they think it’s cool to reuse haggard puns and visual gags, and make everyone in every movie sound hip and cool, no matter what? That’s just plain lazy writing. And for the love of Pete!—can we please stop using that tired joke of “Why can’t we all just get along.” It’s been used by thousands of stand-up comics across the globe, and has been the punchline in just about every TV sitcom and movie since Rodney King made the heartfelt and sincere plea. It’s like it’s required by the Writer’s Guild of America to plug that line into every script.
I’m not going to try and dictate that only quality stories be made, and entertaining fluff should not be. And I can’t say that I never watched trite stupid films that had absolutely no depth to them, because I did. And I love them! But, those future Mystery Science Theater offerings are nothing more than what a Harlequin Romance is to literature—just simple fun, and no harm to anyone. The difference is that nowadays these trivial films are being made with flagrantly excessive budgets to feed the flagrantly excessive producers and studios pockets. Go ahead and think that they make blockbuster movies for the audience’s pleasures. I won’t make this a political rambling, but for many obvious reason—why do we need to spend tens and hundreds of millions of dollars on the making of a single movie? Movies have been made for much less and have been much more effective. Because they used a bit of magic.
No more though. People flock to reality shows, and the filmmakers further endeavor to pump their films full of realism. We’ve become so captivated by the unreal reality of our entertainment that we need to see how all this realism was designed by watching the endless Making of…, or the countless Behind the Scenes. We are no longer fulfilled by watching a good story. We’ve become more fascinated with deconstructing of the magic of the stories, and less bewitched by the stories themselves.
We no longer believe in the magic.
Barry Meyer is a writer living in New Jersey. He’s worked in the film and television biz for the past 10 plus years.
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