In this summer of state-of-the-art digital ogres, pterodons, and outer-space phantoms, Planet of the Apes arrives to show us what they can do these days with makeup and wires. James Cameron, whose name was briefly associated with the project, might have gone in for computer-generated primates like the recent Disney Mighty Joe Young; but Tim Burton, who’s always had a thing for makeup and costumes (cf. Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman, Sleepy Hollow, etc.), accepted the project on condition that the studio agree to use real actors.
The result, thanks to multiple-Oscar-winning makeup wizard Rick Baker (How the Grinch Stole Christmas), is arguably the summer’s most extraordinary spectacle. When I looked at General Thade (Tim Roth), I didn’t see an actor under laytex, I saw a malevolent chimpanzee — an obviously intelligent chimpanzee to be sure, and capable of an astonishing range of expression, yet completely persuasive.
Helena Bonham Carter is also convincingly simian as the chimpanzee Ari, though less so than Thade, since she has to be visibly feminine and potentially attractive to the human lead (Mark Wahlberg). But the gorillas, like Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan) and Krull (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), are as compellingly realistic as Thade, if not quite as expressive.
The actors even move like apes, or like anthropomorphized apes, a trick they learned in "ape school" under the tutelage of a former Cirque du Soleil gymnast-contortionist (Terry Notary) who’s studied real apes in motion. Wire work completes the effect, enabling Burton’s hominoids to scale walls or charge forward on all fours as effortlessly as the real thing. (In one of my favorite ape moments, Carter’s Ari sits contemplatively writing in a notebook — with her toes.)
If only Burton cared as much about having real characters as he did about having real actors. If only he cared that much about telling a compelling story. Or dealing in a meaningful way with social themes like prejudice and war. Or crafting a serious pedal-to-the-metal action thrill machine. Or doing consistently funny camp. Something — anything — to do with the world he’s created, beyond just hanging out there.
But no. We get a bit of this, a dash of that — a few funny lines; a modicum of large-scale action; some half-hearted gesturing in the direction of an anti-prejudice message — but no one element (beyond the visuals) that seems compelling: least of all the characters, who are more soulless even than the one-dimensional computer-generated synthespians of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.
The human characters, especially, suffer. Mark Wahlberg (Three Kings) is a capable actor, but as an astronaut named Leo Davidson, he’s as nondescript as Barry Pepper in Battlefield Earth. Wahlberg lacks utterly the presence and gravity that made Charleton Heston so watchable in the original; in a critical scene with a mob of human refugees waiting for him to tell them what to do, he falls flatter than a banana peel.
Kris Kristofferson and Estella Warren play local humans who follow Leo; Kristofferson’s a tribal chieftain, and Warren is his daughter and theoretically Leo’s human love interest. Neither matters a whit: Kristofferson does nothing particularly chiefly, and Warren, a former swimsuit model, seems to exist only to fill out her chattel-chic two-piece. One of them gets killed and the other kisses Leo goodbye, and neither scene has the slightest emotional resonance.
The apes are only marginally more interesting. Particularly watchable is Helena Bonham Carter as Ari, a senator’s daughter who uses her privilege to her own advantage as a "human-rights activist" (a phrase that on the Planet of the Apes has a cultural sense similar to the term "animal-rights activist" here). Tim Roth is fearsome as Thade, though his deadly glare is overplayed; he’d have been more effective if he appeared in fewer scenes. At least he shows energy, unlike the lethargic Wahlberg.
Fans of the original 1968 film (or of the novel by Pierre Boulle) will find that Burton’s version bears only passing similarities to its source material. That’s fine by me; I never read Boulle, and, while I like the original movie, it’s not what I would call a Great Film. Burton pays homage to the earlier film by satirizing its best-known lines, from "Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!" to "Damn them all! Damn them all to hell!"; and Charlton Heston has a fun cameo in which the NRA president gets to wax eloquent about firearms.
But the moralizing spirit of the first film, while heavy-handed there, feels in Burton’s version perfunctory and lacking in conviction. When a wheedling ape mumbles Rodney King’s famous plea ("Can’t we all just get along?"), it’s a mere punchline, not a heartfelt social statement.
Somewhat more seriously meant, perhaps, are a thread of rather misanthropic remarks coming not from prejudiced apes but from candid humans. In an early scene aboard a space station, Leo asks a pretty research scientist with a (regular) chimp in her arms if she’d "ever consider an actual boyfriend", and her reply is, "You mean do I feel like being miserable? No thanks, I think I’ll stick with my chimp." Later, when one of the intelligent apes comments on the controversial phenomenon of human intelligence, Leo answers, "Yeah, we’re pretty smart. And the more intelligent we get, the more dangerous we become." Later, when the gorilla patriarch played by Heston says of men, "Their ingenuity goes hand in hand with their cruelty," it seems clear this isn’t meant as mere ape propaganda.
There’s also some typical religion-bashing. As in the original film, the apes (who, with their spears and horses, are still culturally primitive) have an intolerant religion in which it is heresy to speak of men having souls. Saying grace before a meal, one ape thanks a deity who "created all apes in his image," adding a messianic coda to "hasten the day of your return when you will bring peace." This parody of the doctrine of the Second Coming turns out to have an unexpected plot significance; but its immediate import is to link Christian belief with intolerance and cultural primitiveness.
The climax, which is bound to be the subject of much end-credits discussion and debate, attempts to one-up the famous shock ending of the first film while setting the stage for a hoped-for sequel. On the face of it, the new ending doesn’t seem to make any sense at all, though there are a couple of ways it could be rationalized, and presumably a sequel would have to choose one of them. For my part, I liked it as much as anything in the film, although I can see why other people would be annoyed.
In the end, like other movies this year from Memento to Moulin Rouge to A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Planet of the Apes is a movie that will please some while disappointing others. The difference is that with each of those other films, the debate was over whether it was terrible — or brilliant. With Planet of the Apes, the question is only whether it’s terrible, or adequate.
Adapted by Rod Serling from Pierre Boulle’s Swiftian social satire, Planet of the Apes is basically a feature-length "Twilight Zone" episode, with all that that implies for good and ill. There’s an ironic sci-fi reversal of real-world conditions, a rather thin plot padded to fill out the running time, heavy-handed but sincere allegorical moralizing, thought-provoking social satire, and a stunningly imagined climactic twist.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.