ONE OF THE MOST noted cinematic faux pas of the early 00s, Planet of The Apes (2001) was envisaged as an original and refreshing re-imagining of the 1968 film classic, with more of the narrative elements of Pierre Boulles original novel (1963). But when Tim Burton strikes a miss, he strikes a ten mile-wide miss and breaks several neighbouring windows.
Now, the original is not a perfect film by any means- few classics are – but Apes ’68 has aged more poorly than most. But though many of the effects and prosthetics now look decidedly dated- any modern actor worth their salt would throw a fit before you could coerce them into those ape masks – what it did possess was an earnest intelligence and subtlety in portraying the strengths and weaknesses of man as a species.
In this, the film is bolstered no end by Charlton Heston as Taylor, one of three astronauts to survive a crash-landing among the barren foothills of the planet’s mysterious forbidden zone after a lengthy, possibly millennial, time in stasis. From what little we learn of their mission, all the astronauts know that their relatives in their former lives are long since dead. Heston bickers cynically with fellow astronaut, the more altruistic Landon (Robert Gunner), over his reasons for accepting the mission as the two explore the wastes.
What is interesting about Heston’s character is that he is the perfect tool through which to explore the film’s themes concerning the nature of man. Heston depicts Taylor as a born survivor: pioneering, wily and adaptable, yet capable of using extreme savagery when his life and freedom are threatened. The parallels with Robinson Crusoe are apparent early on, as when Taylor discovers a footprint in the peat, the first definite sign of life on the planet.
Though we never cease to sympathise with Taylor’s unabated plight, we can nevertheless understand how the apes who capture him might fear him as a wild beast, as he runs about half naked in tattered garments, cursing and laying about him. We can even understand, if not forgive, the principal antagonist Dr. Zaius’ desire to have him lobotomised or put down.
In place of Heston, Burton’s PotA stars Mark Wahlberg as Capt. Leo Davidson. Now, I’m by no means a detractor of Wahlberg, he’s put in a fair few very solid performances in films I’ve liked, when well directed, viz. The Departed (2006), The Fighter (2010); I’ve yet to watch Boogie Nights, but I’ve heard it’s excellent. Quite like Nic Cage, Wahlberg always commits to his role, no matter how shoddily directed or written; both certainly have a habit of picking some god awful scripts. But Wahlberg still lacks Heston’s dramatic intensity and world-weary magnetism.
Wahlberg is of course, hamstrung by the dreadful writing and plot. Things get off to a pretty awful start; whereas the astronauts of the first film crash in the course of a, never quite explained, vital mission, Wahlberg’s Leo is instead lost to the void when he decides to enter a time-rupturing supernova to recover… (sigh) his chimp buddy.
Now, it’s nice that Leo is attached to his pet/experiment subject, but he literally disobeys orders and flies into very probable death on a hunch that he can save a frikken chimp: “Never send a monkey to do a man’s job.” That’s not brave, that’s not noble, that’s not some clever parable about the equal value of any and all life, that’s just insanely moronic.
Like many a botched big-budget film, a revisioned Planet of The Apes had been languishing in development hell for some decades. While Burton can’t therefore be entirely blamed for the resulting mess, it nevertheless represents a black smudge on his career that would not be equalled until the utter unadulterated excrement that was Alice in Wonderland (2010) – a huge financial success, depressingly enough.
If there’s one dollop of praise that can balm this film’s pustulent sores, it’s the prosthetics work. What really hampered the original film was limitations in design, makeup and effects. Though fifty years ago the design work and ape makeup were judged pretty impressive, they’ve not aged gracefully. Furthermore, the costume and design of the ape’s settlement is a pretty basic copy of Romanesque-levant style dwellings. The apes walk, talk and climb ladders exactly like a man. This could of course, be explained as part of the extended metaphor of the film, but the effect is often underwhelming.
In PotA 2001 however, there’s clearly a lot of work put into the costume and graphical design; though the huge Assyrian style longhelms look pretty silly and impractical, there’s no denying that they’re distinctive. The makeup is so effective on a lot of the apes that it’s actually a real challenge at times to tell which are CG, particularly in the case of the main antagonist General Thade (Tim Roth).
On the other side of the coin, many of the apes sink into the uncanny valley. Particularly the she-apes, who all sport human hair dos – and hair don’ts – weirdly. The apes of the original, though possessed of a pretty generic and unexplored culture, had an apparent kind of dignity and civility which makes the viewer ponder who, after all, are the real beasts?
Burton’s apes, though certainly distinctive, instead go straight for a Sodom and Gomorrah approach. They sit around guffawing at the idea of a welfare state, along with other weird political comments that lead nowhere. They grunt and bark at each other, abuse their slaves ubiquitously and, constantly, go ape shit.
Easily one of the worst, and most annoying, characters is Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), made up to have an uncanny resemblance to Michael Jackson. She’s a neoliberal chimp from the upper echelons of ape society, with a penchant for human men. Ari and Leo form an unlikely alliance to find Leo’s ship, and in the process stop the megalomaniacal Thade from eradicating all the disparate remaining human tribes. Their relationship teeters unpleasantly on the romantic, with Wahlberg looking more and more noticeably uncomfortable throughout their scenes.
Tim Roth’s Thade is a character indicative of one of PotA 2001‘s biggest problems: The apes as they’re presented are tyrannical alien overlords with a Roman/Assyrian fixation. There’s absolutely nothing to suggest how they came to be the superior race beyond ‘maaannn’. Likewise, there’s nothing to suggest that the apes represent anything other than a savage, brutal society.
The comical, slave trading orang-utan Limbo (Paul Giamatti) casually chatters about an ailment cure: “First you gut a living human, then lay out their entrails…” Ha ha? The original film’s apes had some pretty totalitarian aspects sure, but they weren’t pointlessly cruel and barbaric in the way these apes are, and that’s far less interesting.
Thade is the worst example of fu-manchuing throughout the film, I literally can’t remember a single piece of his dialogue where he doesn’t snarl, growl or generally go ape shit about something. He loses his shit with his daughter, for no reason; he routinely loses his shit with Limbo, for no reason, and he goes ape shit with his soldiers about everything else, because no general inspires loyalty like one who’s an absolute dick to everyone? At times it borders on the hilarious; at others, it genuinely is.
Whilst the human tribespeople in the other film are mysteriously mute, further feeding the man becomes beast analogy, the tribespeople in this film hardly shut up, which makes it even more inexplicable that the apes refuse to accept man’s sentience. In the original, Taylor’s ability to speak when the rest of mankind is silent was what marked him out as both an enigma and a threat. Here, there’s nothing apparently special about Leo – though it’s always comforting to know that English is still the inter-species lingua franca of the universe – and yet he almost immediately becomes the (constantly hyperventilating) child of cosmic prophecy.
Burton’s PotA makes almost as many blunders as Battlefield Earth (2000) and is almost as entertaining as a result. But unlike Battlefield Earth, Burton had an entire franchise to reboot, and one of the most iconic pieces of cinema as source material. While the film disappointed many fans, it nevertheless proved a financial success and the franchise has since been re-rebooted, starting with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), with far more success on pretty much every level.
For all the film’s many failings from start to finish, what caused the most controversy was Burton’s new ending. What did Tim Burton do with the original iconic ending, you might ask? That cathartic moment of truth when Taylor realises that he was home on earth all along and that the future of mankind has long since dried up in the deserts of its own devising? Simple, Leo finds his chimp friend, orchestrates world peace, literally with the push of a button, and flies back into the time vortex to find himself at the foot of… the Ape-raham Lincoln memorial, yeah… what a twist?
Even starring actor Tim Roth had to concede that he had no clue what the significance of the ending twist was supposed to be: “I cannot explain that ending. I’ve seen it twice and I understand nothing.” Burton has since explained in interviews that the ending was not meant to make any particular sense, but simply to serve as a usable cliff-hanger for the proposed sequel. When he was asked if he would direct any future sequels, Burton replied, “I think I’d rather jump out a window.” Wise words Tim, wise words. Now, please, for the love of god, stop making Alice sequels.