Planet of the Apes is, like most Tim Burton movies, a bit uneven, veering
wildly from inspired insanity to strange inanity. And, like all Tim Burton films,
Apes is, in spite of its flaws, a heaping helping of weird Burtony goodness.
There are going to be a lot of people who don't like Planet of the Apes,
particularly those who have fond memories of the original. It will be criticized
as being 1) too much of a summer popcorn movie and 2) a silly B movie.
1) Burton makes popcorn movies. That's what he does. They may be popcorn movies
that are just dark enough and just off-center enough to charm those of us who grimace
at the idea of going to see Jurassic Park III, but they're still popcorn
movies. Batman. Batman Returns. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.
Beetlejuice. Sleepy Hollow. Popcorn, popcorn, popcorn. Popcorn
covered with goth-sauce instead of butter.
2) Burton is a silly B filmmaker. He's a devotee of B movies. He grew up watching
flying saucer movies and creature features and 70s anti-utopian sci-fi. He did
a poignant biography of one of the worst filmmakers of all time (Ed Wood).
He made a genius, pitch-perfect big-budget B-movie (Mars Attacks!), which
unfortunately didn't do so well in theaters because most of the audience didn't
get the joke.
Planet of the Apes is not a B movie, but it does have some of those
elements. Burton sets it only 28 years in the future, thereby guaranteeing that
it will soon be hopelessly dated, much like many of those great prophetic sci-fi
movies from the 60s and 70s. The movie's hero, Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg),
is a square-jawed underdeveloped everyman character. The space station he lives
on has the same featureless sterile white-walled interior found in every "building
of the future." And when Leo's spacecraft hits a Star Trek style time anomaly,
the chronometer in his cockpit actually counts the quickly passing years!
Burton uses these elements at his peril. Especially with material as iconic
as Planet of the Apes, a film from the heyday of social commentary sci-fi.
A lot of people are going to turn up their noses.
If you were hoping for a return of the "serious sci-fi movie," something
that is more speculative fiction than thrill ride (2001, 1984,
THX-1138), sorry. Aside from Gattaca and A.I., I can't
think of a recent example. But Burton does one thing that old-fashioned sci-fi
did. He throws us into the middle of a fully detailed topsy-turvy "what
if?" universe, and doesn't let us leave.
Burton's ape planet is not simply a bunch of people with ape makeup on. It
is a fully imagined society. Their human qualities are matched with utterly
believable animal behaviors. The apes have literature, entertainment, government,
religion. But they also shriek, growl, and beat their chests. They have opposable
hands and feet. They leap from place to place. They use smell as one of their
primary senses. Touch is one of their most important means of communication.
And they fight like primates, with raw power, thumping their enemies with their
hands and forearms.
Burton has a gift for the absurd that is at once funny and disturbing. An ape
cranks an organ grinder while a human being dances about and does tricks. And
one ape child picks out a small human girl to keep as a pet, the way our children
go to the pound to pick out a puppy. Is Burton going for cheap laughs, or is
he a sick, twisted little bastard? We're meant to identify with the beleaguered
humans, but it's the apes who are the stars of the show. Leo Davidson is nondescript,
and the female lead (Estella Warren) is just window dressing.
The supporting primate actors are wonderful: Michael Clarke Duncan (The
Green Mile) as Attar, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Mortal Kombat) as Krull,
Paul Giamatti as the slave trader Limbo, and Charlton Heston as Thade's father.
But what really makes the movie are the --- quite honestly --- Oscar-worthy
performances of Helena Bonham Carter as Ari and Tim Roth as General Thade. Of
course, they won't even be considered come Oscar time. After all, it's just
a goofy sci-fi movie about talking apes. But if the true challenge of acting
is to transform yourself into something that you are not, then Carter and Roth
deserve some trophies. With the help of Rick Baker's astonishing makeups, these
two created living, breathing, highly nuanced characters. What they did in that
movie must have taken a lot more discipline, talent, and imagination than what
Julia Roberts and Russell Crowe had to muster up for their Academy Award winning
roles. Nothing against Julia and Russell, mind you. It's just that Roth and
Carter are unearthly.
I could do an entire review about the strengths and weaknesses of the last
30 minutes of Planet of the Apes, but, for the moment, you'll get no
spoilers from me. Just go see the film. I know that after Tomb Raider and
Jurassic Park III, you probably can't stomach the thought of another
"big summer movie," but get your stinkin' hands on a movie ticket,
you damn dirty ape!
For behind the scenes info on Planet of the Apes, see the RevolutionSF features on
Rick Baker and Cary-Hiroyuki