Planet of the Apes (2001)

by Ben Varkentine


Re-imagine this, you damn dirty ape!

“Unfortunately, no contemporary film director can bear to be thought a mere interpreter. He must be sole creator. As a result he is more often than not a plagiarist, telling stories that are not his.”
—Gore Vidal, “Who Makes the Movies?”, in The Second American Revolution and Other Essays (1976-1982)

cover art

Planet of the Apes

Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham-Carter, Michael Clark Duncan, Estella Warren, Paul Giamatti, Kris Kristofferson, David Warner

(Fox Searchlight Pictures)

We are told, by the press notes and the movie tie-in book, that the new Planet of the Apes movie is a “re-imagining” by Tim Burton. This is a meaningless word. “Imagination” is defined as “the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality.” You can’t “re-imagine” something. You can adapt it, but you can’t re-imagine it. That’s bullshit. Pierre Boulle first imagined a Planet of the Apes in his novel, Monkey Planet. Michael Wilson and Rod Serling adapted this into the first film, introducing social commentary on America in 1968. Serling was particularly experienced and adept at using the trappings of fiction to comment on one thing while seemingly writing about another, having had to do so frequently in his early plays for television and The Twilight Zone. Paul Dehn and Mort Abrahams co-wrote the first sequel, and Dehn went on to write most of the rest of the series. These men, in descending order of primacy, created the Planet of the Apes series as we know it today but only one of them—Boulle—can honestly be said to have “imagined” it. The compulsion to convince audiences that anyone “re-imagined” the material is press-agent puffery on a level with Michael Jackson’s insistence on being referred to as “The King of Pop.” And it is especially insidious as applied to the vastly overrated Burton.

Burton seems to me to have no skills whatsoever in storytelling or the presentation of characters, both qualities I think I am not unreasonable in expecting of a “visonary” director. But Burton is not so much a director as he is a brilliant production designer. His skills lie in design. Having started out as an animator, he knows how to make pretty moving pictures. But being able to make pretty moving pictures is not the same as being able to make pretty moving pictures, if you take the point. Burton is only able to “re-imagine” settings for other people’s stories and imagery, from Ed Wood to Mars Attacks. I have colleagues who are great Burton fans, and they bemoan the fact that he keeps taking “money gigs” like Planet of the Apes, and await the time that he will return to telling his “own” stories like Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands. They’ll be waiting a long time, I suspect. Burton’s imagination seems pretty clearly exhausted, and he has no new tale to tell.

And neither did writers William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner, and Mark Rosenthal. Their screenplay branches out in different directions from the original film series, but the premise and the character outlines are the same. Here’s Leo (Mark Wahlberg; see Charlton Heston in the 1968 Planet), an astronaut who crash-lands on a planet of the apes. And here’s Tim Roth as Thade, a warrior general ape (James Gregory as Ursus in Beneath the Planet of the Apes). Over there, Ari, a chimp interested in human rights (Helena Bonham Carter, filling in for Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall). You say you want a beautiful girl human for the hero to befriend? You have Estella Warren, filling the eye candy quotient that Linda Harrison did in the first movie.

The makers of the new Planet of the Apes had a choice between making a film that was entertaining, with a message, like the original, or making a movie that was stupid fun. There is always room at the box office for both. In 1968, when the original Apes was released, it shared honors in the top five money makers of the year with Funny Girl and Star!, as well as Romeo and Juliet and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Well, folks, the makers of the new movie (who ironically include some makers of the old movie) went with stupid fun. There is little to recommend this film. There are some good performances, especially from Roth and Michael Clarke Duncan as Captain Attar of the ape army. Attar is one of the only inspired characters in the new film, a warrior priest devoted to his god and dedicated to his General, Thade. Duncan has powerful moments, but Burton doesn’t know how to use him to best potential. The script requires the character to make one of those stop-on-a-dime changes that compromises much of his potential depth.

And speaking of potential depth: I am a fan of Danny Elfman’s old “alternative”—back when that word meant something—pop/rock band Oingo Boingo. I think he was a real distinctive voice for a generation. As a composer for film and television, however, his best work remains the theme to The Simpsons and the scores to the first two Batman movies (directed by Burton), with the rest largely sounding alike. Here Elfman’s score does not sound much like his previous work, but is also not as memorable as most of his soundtracks. But competing with Jerry Goldsmith’s exotic music for the original movie must have been, or should have been, almost as daunting as remaking the film itself. But then, Elfman did the even more unnecessary Psycho remake, so perhaps he’s used to aping his betters.

The devastating ending of the original is one of the most powerful moments in pop culture, and the sequels, for all the virtues of some, never equaled it. The variation provided here is insulting. It’s a twist just because someone decided a Planet of the Apes movie has to end with a twist, without much thought for logic or respect for character. Look, the original Apes films were cautionary tales, warning that we must not be careless with one another, lest we let beasts—dark mirrors of ourselves—rule and ultimately destroy the planet. The remake wipes all such nuances clean, replacing them with an assembly-line “Sci-Fi” story. The message of the new Apes is this: If you have a big enough gun, you will prevail—and never leave your enemy alive or he’ll come back to bite you in the ass.

The early success of the Apes films and their long shelf-life resulted from the fact that they delivered deep themes, under the ape suits. Books have been written detailing the metaphors for race relations and modern warfare in the series. These films were never about apes; they were about the planet of the humans. And this is why, finally, Tim Burton should never have been given this assignment. There are no humans in his films, which can impress, but never move us. To move us, a film must engage us, and that means that at some point, a film must give us humanity, even if the characters are not human. Make that especially if the characters are not human.

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