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Ape Management Part 6: Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001)

My friends and I discovered the Planet of the Apes films in college.  We’d taken to visiting the local rental store, trying to fill in the gaps in our movie-watching histories.  Basically, we rented films that we felt we really SHOULD see, since we considered ourselves movie-fans.  When we realized that none of us had seen Planet of the Apes, we decided to give that a viewing.  Suffice it to say, we LOVED it, in all its silly/serious glory.  When we realized that there were actually FOUR MORE Planet of the Apes films, we decided, well, we’d better watch them all too!  We had a great deal of fun watching the entire series, and the Apes films quickly became the movies we were prone to throw on, late at night, when in need of some entertainment.

So back in 2000/2001, when we heard that there was actually going to be a NEW Planet of the Apes film, and that it was going to be a big-budget version helmed by Tim Burton (a filmmaker we all held in high esteem), we were pretty much blown away with excitement and anticipation.  Though we were well out of college by then, several of us gathered together on opening weekend, to take in this new Apes film together.

Sigh.

I don’t think any of us HATED Tim Burton’s film, but we were pretty underwhelmed by what we saw.  I had such a dim view of Mr. Burton’s movie that, despite being a huge fan of the Apes series, and despite the many times I have re-watched the original five Apes films during the subsequent decade, I have never once been driven to sit down and watch Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes film again.

But I’d been having so much fun, recently, re-watching all of the Apes films in preparation for the new Apes movie that I decided, what the heck, it’s been ten years, let’s give Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes film another go.  Maybe now, removed from all of the hype and my built-up expectations, I’d think more highly of this film.

No such luck.  Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes is pretty much exactly the dud I remembered it being.

Things get off to a bad start right a way with a lugubrious opening credits sequence in which the camera slowly floats around an ornate object extreme close-up.  Gradually the camera pulls back, and we see it’s an ape helmet.  I thought this was cool when Mr. Burton did that with the Bat-Signal during the opening credits of Batman, but here it felt boring — been there, done that.

Things pick up somewhat during the sequence that follows.  In 2029, we see a group of scientists working on an orbiting space platform, the Oberon, training apes to pilot space-ships.  I like the sci-fi aspects of this sequence (more serious sci-fi than Charlton Heston smoking a cigar in a fake-looking space-ship in the original Planet of the Apes), and since we know what movie we’re watching, there’s a fun sense of impending catastrophe, as it’s clear things are not going to go well for these astronauts and their chimps.  Disaster does indeed strike, and very quickly Captain Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) finds himself sucked through some sort of vortex/worm-hole and crash-lands on a jungle planet ruled by damn dirty apes.

Wahlberg (and I’m just going to call him Wahlberg, since it’s an indication of how little impact his passive character made on me that, despite the fact that I just watched this movie, I had no idea his character’s name was Leo Davidson until I looked it up on imdb) gets captured, of course, and sold as a servant to the family of a rich, privileged female ape named Ari (Helena Bonham Carter).

What follows is an incredibly boring, seemingly-endless dinner scene which grinds the movie to a halt and which contains in it every failing that affects the film as a whole.

I remember reading, when this film was released, all about the elaborate make-up effects that would enable the apes of this film to look far more ape-like than those of the original Planet of the Apes films.  I remember reading about the movement training given to all of the actors, so that their movements would be far more realistically ape-like than those of the actors in the original Apes films, who pretty much walked and moved just like human beings would.  (Never mind that that was sort of the point, that these apes had evolved to be totally human-like.  But whatever.)  It’s very possible that the ape characters in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes are indeed all far more ape-like than those of the original films.  But while the make-up is technically impressive, I found it to be more distracting than it was worth.  There was fare more humanity in the simple make-up of Roddy McDowell’s and Kim Hunter’s than in any of these modern apes characters.  (And the attempt to make Helena Bonham Carter’s ape look sexy was, to me, totally off-putting and sort of stomach-churning.)  And I found the constant motion — the leaping, the scratching, the huffing and puffing, etc. — of all of the ape characters (especially Tim Roth’s villanous General Thade) to be totally annoying.

Most problematically, the social commentary of the original Planet of the Apes films was totally absent.  Yes, during this dinner sequence we learn that the apes are all decadent, but so what?  What is this movie really ABOUT?  However primitive and cheesy, the original Planet of the Apes was clearly about something.  It was a film with a lot on its mind, and it had a lot to say about the human condition, and where our society was heading.  Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes seems to be about showing off expensive make-up and visual effects, but the film over-all is empty.

It’s empty of social commentary, and it’s empty of any sort of characters that the audience can care about, or any relationships that we can invest in.  I really like Mark Wahlberg, but he’s a total zero in this film.  This is partly the script’s fault (Captain Davidson has no character traits that I could discern, except that he’s pissed that he’s evidently not a good enough pilot to be able to operate one of the space-pods seen at the beginning of the fulm), but Mr. Wahlberg does nothing to bring any charisma or intensity to his scenes.  His character is completely passive — he just sort of floats through the movie, with events happening around him.

Everyone else around him is just as one-note.  Helena Bonham’s Ari is an ape with sympathy for humans.  General Thade (Tim Roth) is entirely evil, an ape who hates humans and wants them all dead.  Estella Warren plays the beautiful human girl who falls in love with the main character.  (In the original film, this was Nova.  Imdb lists this character’s name as Daena, but this was never mentioned in the film.)  She can speak, unlike Nova, but despite that she has even less character or personality than Nova did.  Michael Clarke Duncan and Paul Giamatti try to bring some energy into their characters (and I’ll admit that each has a few good moments), but since neither one has a) any importance to the overall plot or b) any real character-development either, they don’t really impact the film in any way.

There are some fun little nods to the original film (such as a brief scene with Charlton Heston, this time playing an ape) but to me they seemed superficial, more like calculated ways to appeal to fans of the original films, rather than moments that felt like logical, integral parts of the story being told.  (I suspect if I’d been enjoying the film over-all, I’d feel differently about those references to the original films, but I wasn’t so I didn’t.)

I’d hoped things would pick up when Mark Wahlberg and his small band of apes/humans finally make it into this film’s version of the Forbidden Zone, Calima, but what we got was an obvious plot-“twist” (that there was no rescue party from Wahlberg’s crew, just the wreckage of their space-ship), and a third-rate retread of the revelation of the origin of V’Ger from Star Trek: The Motion Picture! (In this case, the name Calima is revealed to have come from the dust-covered sign reading CAution LIve aniMAls.)  Urgh.

And then there’s that ending.

SPOILERS ahead, gang, so beware.

The first time I saw this film, I actually liked the ending.  I interpreted it as meaning that all of the events we’d been watching had — like those of the original film — been happening on Earth.  Except that while the the discovery at the end of the original Planet of the Apes indicated that we’d been on Earth in the far future, I assumed that in this film, we had been on Earth of the PAST.  The destruction of the space station Oberon had changed Earth’s history, and so when Mark Wahlberg returned to his present day, the time-line had changed.  He was returning to the correct year, but now in a time-line in which, in the ancient past, apes had become intelligent and taken over the world.  That’s why he discovered a monument to the long-dead General Thade.  I thought that was a pretty clever spin on the original film’s shock ending.  It was basically the SAME ending — it was Earth all along! — but with a different twist.

But watching this film for the second time, I see that my interpretation doesn’t make sense.  In several shots, we see that the Planet of the Apes on which Mark Wahlberg crashes is clearly NOT Earth — this planet has several moons!  So if this Planet of the Apes was NOT, in fact, Earth, then how and why does Mark Wahlberg return to Earth to find it ruled by Apes, and with a monument to General Thade (an ape from ANOTHER PLANET)??  It makes ZERO sense, and to me represents the final nail in the coffin of this failed “reimagining” (a word I remember being constantly used to describe this attempted reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise).  I’m all for a great shock ending, but it needs to make some sense in the context of the story being told.  Ape Lincoln is just a twist for a twist’s sake.  It doesn’t make any sense, and to me sees like a sort of middle finger to the audience.  “Figure THAT out, why don’t you!”, the film is saying.  Roll credits!

It’s a real bummer to see a filmmaker as talented as Tim Burton strike out like this — and particularly when working with such fertile source material!  (Sadly, Planet of the Apes would represent the start of what I think has been a long, troubled decade for Mr. Burton, in which I have found myself disappointed by his films again and again.)  I continue to believe there is life in this franchise, and would LOVE to see a serious, big-budget new take on this series.  Will the new film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, succeed in this?  I am seeing it very soon, and I ‘ll be back here, shortly, with my detailed report!

Here are my previous Planet of the Apes reviews: Planet of the Apes (1967), Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1969), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973).

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