NOW PLAYING: Planet of the Apes

Posted: Wednesday, August 01, 2001

You've got to give it to Tim Burton; his stuff looks great. Batman was a comic book come to life; Mars Attacks captured the fifties impression of an alien invasion in vibrant color. Unfortunately, the rest of the film can't always live up to the look. Batman and Edward Scissorhands are near masterpieces all around; Mars Attacks was nearly incoherent. Much to my chagrin, Planet of the Apes is much more Mars than Batman.

Granted, I set my self up for disappointment. I, like three-fourths of the people who go to see this movie, grew up loving the original series of films. Planet of the Apes (1968) was suspenseful, thought-provoking, and ultimately disturbing. It was creepy and cool, and it's no wonder that Tim Burton would be drawn to it. Charleton Heston plays Taylor, an interstellar explorer who becomes stranded on a strange planet where apes are the masters and humans are the animals. Taylor is an oddity and a threat to the Apes' view of the world because, unlike other humans, he talks. Not only does he talk, it appears he can think and reason. Hunted by the establishment, Taylor escapes and strikes out on his own where he discovers (and I hate to reveal this because it's one of the most shocking climaxes in a movie I can think of) that he is actually on Earth, hundreds of thousands - perhaps millions - of years in the future. It is a story of man's arrogance in assuming his place at the top of the food chain is unshakable, as well as an indictment of creationism.

In the updated version, which the filmmakers have gone to great lengths to explain is a "reinvention" not a "remake," Heston's role is filled by Mark Wahlberg, a captain in the US Air Force. He and his research vessel are in deep space above an uncharted planet, studying. . . . something. It's never made clear. They do make a point to hit you over the head with the fact that they are using genetically enhanced chimps as test pilots, a fact that really burns Capt. Marky Mark. Through a pretty ridiculous series of choices, Wahlberg ends up flying into a static storm that, for reasons that are, again, unclear, shoots him thousands of years into the future, spitting him out into the planet's atmosphere where he crash lands into a pond. Almost immediately he is captured, along with a bunch of other tribal-looking humans, by walking, talking apes. While this would blow most people's minds, Mark takes it all in stride. Here's where the stories diverge,I think, in a very fundamental way.

In this new version, all the humans talk and think, which ends up making the movie more of a statement on racism than anything else. Wahlberg escapes with the help of an aristocratic chimpanzee with human sympathies, and embarks on a journey to rejoin his shipmates, who he believes have landed on the planet and are waiting for him. There is a shocking ending or two here as well, but I won't reveal them. One twist is really pretty clever, but the other is completely nonsensical. Part of the problem is that since most Hollywood budgets are now outweighing the GNP of most third-world nations, producers are terrified to take any chances. There can be no ambiguity, no loose ends. The main conflict has to be resolved, which often requires the characters to do things that make no sense, or to have revelations that seemingly come from nowhere. It's an insult to the viewer.

But, as I said, the movie looks good. The make-up and costumes are much better than in the original, and that big budget provides for some pretty cool sets. One thing Burton put a lot of work into was making the apes really act like apes. For example, the chimpanzee army charges on all fours, and the city structure makes use of their proclivity for swinging. This aspect is very interesting to start, but gets irritating quickly. Seeing Tim Roth's General Thade leap through the air once or twice is pretty neat, but after the twentieth time you start to wonder if he's carrying a trampoline around with him. The acting is pretty good, considering the pounds of make-up that covered the stars. Michael Clark Duncan makes a great gorilla, and Helena Bonham Carter is agile as the sympathetic chimp. Unfortunately, Carter's make-up job is the only one that doesn't measure up. I think they were afraid for her not to be pretty, and as a result made her look fake. Wahlberg does alright, but he's no Charleton Heston, who has a cameo in the film. His role is one of a few references to the original that I think were meant to play as homages, but come off as parody.

In the end, I'm not sorry I went. It was diverting entertainment, but little more. Maybe if I hadn't seen and loved the original I would feel different, but maybe not. Quality can't be measured solely by comparison, and even without a superior predecessor, this movie wouldn't measure up. Burton's Apes may dominate the box office, but Heston still rules the Planet. Grade: C+

Planet of the Apes is rated PG-13 for violence and scary apes.

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