Planet of the Apes
by Jon Bastian
Burton monkeys around with an 800-pound gorilla and gives us a new classic to go ape over.
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On seeing Tim Burton’s reworking of the like-named 1968 science fiction film landmark Planet of the Apes, the question comes to mind, “How do you remake a classic?” The answer is that you either do it well or you don’t do it all. Mr. Burton has done it well. Yes, the previous outing, directed by veteran Franklin J. Schaffner, is full of pop-culture icons — “Get your hands off me, you damn dirty ape!”, “Damn them. Damn them to hell. They blew it up!”, the half buried Statue of Liberty, Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter in chimpanzee make-up, and on and on. One might well ask, “Why bother to remake it at all?” The answer is because we can. Actually, that’s only half the answer. We can do it without having the end result look cheesy. Granted, the original Planet of the Apes did win a special Oscar for make-up effects, but it cheated us in other places. We never actually saw Charlton Heston’s ship crash, for instance. There were just abstract blobs of light under the opening credits, sound effect, splash, cut to static mock-up in the middle of a lake. The sets were somewhat barren and arid, and the cinematography suffered the flat TV-lighting bane so common to the era.
This time around, we get to see Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg, Three Kings) not only crash-landing, but tooling around in space beforehand. We also get to see how he came to be there. Burton takes his time to give us a bit of prologue, demonstrating one other thing that’s been added to this Apes. Make-up and amazing effects aside, this time around the characters are much deeper and more dimensional. All of them, apes included, are, if you’ll pardon the expression, much more human.
The story is both familiar and different. Human astronaut finds himself stranded on a planet where evolution is upside down. The apes (they hate being called monkeys) are in charge, and the humans are seen as pets at best and pests at worst. There are still allusions to race relations, as in the first film, but the question has been widened here. If apes can’t be humane (or is that “simane?”) toward other animals, how can they expect to treat each other with respect? And if they show so little regard for other species, what does that say about their concern for the entire planet?
After Davidson crash-lands, he is quickly captured by a band of gorilla human-hunters, winding up in a cage at the establishment of Limbo (Paul Giamatti, Big Momma’s House), an orangutan who sells his captives to the spoiled children of well-off apes — among the well-off being the evil and ambitious General Thade (Tim Roth, Pulp Fiction). At the same time, senator’s daughter Ari (Helena Bonham Carter, The Wings of a Dove) hates Limbo and his business and crashes in when she sees them abusing their charges. This leads to her winding up buying Davidson and native love interest Daena (Estella Warren, Driven), but Ari quickly notices that there’s something different about her rescued male. (Apparently, nobody notices that he’s the only human who knows how to shave, but more on that sort of thing later.) Davidson wants to escape and knows how to do it, bringing Daena along. She won’t go without her family, including her father Karubi (Kris Kristofferson, Lone Star) and Ari knows the humans can’t make it without her help, so we soon have a small band of escapees fleeing the city, heading toward the forbidden area. General Thade convinces Ari’s father that she’s been kidnapped, and the senator gives his permission for all-out genocide against the humans. Then the plot thickens.
You’ll notice that all of the names have been changed, but some of the characters are familiar. Ari is definitely a stand-in for Kim Hunter’s Zira, even resembling her slightly. As sole orangutan, Limbo is our Dr. Zaius, except that he’s not a doctor. Neither is Ari, and when you think about it, it’s one of the obvious improvements over the original. After all in the 1968 Apes, there was no technology, but there were scientists. That’s somewhat of an irreconcilable contradiction. Gone also is Cornelius, Roddy MacDowall’s character, but it’s no loss. Without having an ape boyfriend to lug around, Ari is much more dimensional, and it heightens the growing affection between her and Davidson. In the original, Ursus was the evil ape general, but a minor player. This time around, General Thade moves front and center. Again, a stronger choice, because we now have a single protagonist instead of an ethereal “they are the enemy” feeling.
The design of the film is gorgeous, especially the costumes, armor and ape’s weapons. The ape city itself is a crowded wonder, just the kind of place that former tree-dwellers would live in, and Burton packs our introduction to it with some of the best visual jokes in the movie. Far from being the barren stone village of the original, it feels organic and well lived-in. Another good choice, as far as change of venue, was staging the human hunt in a dense forest instead of a wheatfield. It’s only in the latter third of the film that the vistas begin to more resemble their predecessors. Danny Elfman provides a truly gorgeous score here, bringing in hints of the original but avoiding the rather annoying “ball peen hammers on piano strings” feeling that seemed to be a requirement for science fiction music of the sixties.
Rick Baker has topped himself again with an amazing make-up job. These characters really look like apes, not just humans in latex and paint. There’s even a moment, which most audiences won’t even notice, in which one of the apes gets wet and spits out water, face unaffected. Ten years ago, that would have been impossible. Here, it’s just a detail that adds to the illusion. Additionally, these actors move like apes, with the strange half-waddle of a not-quite bipedal creature trying to compensate for its hips being in the wrong place. They jump, climb, swing and brachiate, all to a degree comparable with their size.
The cast is excellent, in and out of make-up. (Several of the ape stars appear unmasked in the prologue as background characters.) Wahlberg, who just keeps getting better and better, is the solid center here, a determined hero type, but definitely not in the Chuck Heston grunt and scream mold. Bonham Carter disappears into her role, obviously, but projects everything through her eyes, giving us a portrait of a caring being, moved by her compassion to take great risks. Roth is just plain scary as Thade, endowing the general with all the animal menace and mammalian swagger necessary. Also menacing is Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile) as Attar, Thade’s hulking gorilla lieutenant. Giamatti is the true stand-out. I’ve always enjoyed his work as a character actor, and he has a field day here as the cowardly, greedy Limbo, delivering some of the funniest lines in the film.
Watch for two cameos of note. First is the inevitable Lisa Marie (Mrs. Tim Burton) appearance, playing a character named Nova in honor of the original. If you remember her from Mars Attacks! or Ed Wood, you’ll recognize her instantly here from her body language alone as she enters with about the most sensuous side-to-side limb-swinging walk possible for a chimpanzee. It’s a fun bit. The other cameo is Charlton Heston himself — always a gracious touch to include an original cast member in a remake — and he even delivers one of the two “obligatory” lines from the first film, which is how you’ll recognize him. And yes, the other line is in here, too, but with a nice twist.
All-in-all, it’s a fun ride that doesn’t take itself quite as seriously as the original, yet manages to be all the deeper for it. Yes, there are several glaring plot holes in evidence, conveniences necessary to the story but somewhat unlikely in real life — as if talking apes are. But the rest of the film is so much fun that I’m willing to overlook them completely. And, anyway, Planet of the Apes in any of its incarnations was never meant to be taken literally. It was always a metaphor about human failings. The original pointed the finger at us. Thirty-three years after the original, Tim Burton has pointed the finger again, but put the hand in a much nicer glove.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. He is a playwright, screenwriter and occassional TV hack, and he disagrees with Tim Burton’s comment that Matt Drudge’s hat should be set on fire. First, it should be nailed to his head. Then it should be set on fire.
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